Way before there was the HR40 reparations bill, which has been stalled for months since being sent to the House floor for full consideration in April 2021, there was a reparations fighter named Callie House.
House was a reparations advocate in the early 1900s. She was a pioneering African-American political activist who campaigned for slave reparations in the Jim Crow-era South. She spent her adult life fighting for financial repair for former slaves and African Americans until she died at the age of 67 of cancer in 1928.
Here are seven things to know about the organizing pioneer and reparations advocate.
1.House was a former slave
She was born Callie Guy as a slave in 1861 in Rutherford County, near Nashville, Tenn. In 1883, now a freedwoman, she married William House. They had five children. When her husband died suddenly, House had to raise her children alone and took works as a washerwoman and seamstress. House did laundry from other African Americans and white patrons to help support her family. In the mid-1890s, the family moved to south Nashville, and it was there that she was introduced to Black activism.
2. Inspired by the Freedmen’s Pension Bill
There was a pamphlet titled “Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freedmen” that was circulating around the Black communities in central Tennessee. This pamphlet spoke of the idea of financial compensation as a way to repair the past exploitation of slavery. The pamphlet inspired House to become involved in the cause, according to Black Past.
3.House became a reparations organizer
House joined Rev. Isaiah Dickerson to organize the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association in 1894. The two of them traveled all over the southern and border states to gain support for the new organization. The organization’s goal was to promote the idea of reparations on a national level.
The groups also helped Black people locally, such as by providing burial expenses for members and to care for those who were sick and disabled.
“We are organizing ourselves together as a race of people who feel they have been wronged,” House declared when she co-founded the organization.
4. House and the initial campaign for reparations
House’s organization is believed to have had hundreds of thousands of members, mostly ex-slaves who endorsed this initial campaign for reparations. But along with the group’s popularity came scrutiny. The U.S. Post Office Department to begin investigating the organization. The Postal agency charged the group with using the mail to defraud people in 1899, and the organization was forbidden to send mail or to cash money orders.
5. Organization under attack
In 1901, the Department of Justice also started an investigation and found Rev. Dickerson guilty of “swindling,” but the conviction, given the lack of evidence, was later overturned. When he died in 1909, House took over full leadership of the organization.
6. House was also harassed
“The government harassed Callie House for exercising her constitutional right to petition the government and to mobilize others in the cause,” wrote Mary Frances Berry, the Amsterdam News reported. Berry grew up near House’s final home in South Nashville and Berry wrote House’s biography “My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.”
“Callie House wanted ex-slaves to have economic capital on their work during slavery. Financial resources made available would strengthen mutual assistance organizations and provide a basis for economic development. She fought to address the poverty and subordination faced by ex-slaves. African-Americans in later generations have made progress, but the underlying issue of appropriate payment is still unresolved,” said Berry.
7. ‘My Face Is Black Is True’
“My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations” was the book Berry wrote about her friend and neighbor Callie House.
The biography gives an inside look at one of Black history someone forgotten heroes. And explains the country’s first mass reparations movement for Black Americans.
Photo by RODNAE Productions: https://www.pexels.com/photo/city-road-man-people-6257966/