Blogs > Cliopatria > Michael Vorenberg: Review of Mary Frances Berry's My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations

Sep 19, 2005 6:32 pm

Michael Vorenberg: Review of Mary Frances Berry's My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations

Are African Americans owed reparations for the toil extracted from their forebears under slavery? Many who think not make the argument that the call for reparations is merely a recently hatched scheme driven by selfish motives. It isn't. As Mary Frances Berry's fascinating new book reveals, the campaign for reparations has a long and respectable history.

At the center of Berry's story is Callie House. Born a slave in 1861, the first year of the Civil War, House grew up in a poor family in central Tennessee. In 1898, she was a mother of five, earning around $2 a week as a Nashville washerwoman but finding time to organize the first convention of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, an organization that provided direct aid to ex-slaves and lobbied Congress for bounties and pensions. She seems to have been born with a talent and passion for organizing. And, as Civil War veterans' organizations successfully lobbied state and federal governments for better pensions, she became outraged that the former slaves she knew, many of whom had served as laborers for the Union army, received nothing. House, who became the longtime secretary of the association, launched a petition drive to collect the signatures of all ex-slaves -- about two million were still alive in 1898 -- by using the local chapters to contact them.

House drew, in part, from an ex-slave pension bill drafted by Walter Vaughan, a Democrat from a former Alabama slaveholding family, and proposed to Congress by William J. Connell, a Republican from Nebraska. The bill proposed a sliding scale of payments: $500 bounties and $15 a month for the oldest ex-slaves; $100 bounties and $4 a month for the youngest. Vaughan pretended to care about the plight of former slaves, but, according to Berry, his true purpose was to help Southern whites by pumping federal money through the hands of blacks into the moribund Southern economy.

The national pension movement soon ran into roadblocks. Congress failed to take up the bill, and the prospects for legislation became hopeless when Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born, pro-segregation Democrat, became president. A separate initiative by the group to sue the government for the "cotton tax" -- $68 million collected between 1862 and 1868 from the sales of cotton picked by slaves -- also fizzled. Like most modern reparations lawsuits, this one was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, the principle that the government cannot be sued without its consent.

But the U.S. Postal Service was the association's ultimate undoing. Invoking the Comstock law, which prohibited the transport of obscene or fraudulent materials through the mails, postal agents prohibited House from distributing the petition, disingenuously claiming that they were protecting blacks from scam artists....

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