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Seeking payment for slavery
Former U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chair and author Mary Frances Berry's new book My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations provides vital information on an overlooked name in American history, Nashville's Callie House. A former slave turned crusading advocate, House's pioneering work on behalf of African Americans was not only met with hostility by the government, but also ridiculed by some key figures in the black community.
Berry's volume traces the establishment and evolution of House's Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, a pioneering organization created to deliver fiscal justice to former slaves. House based her efforts on the pensions given Union soldiers, arguing that former slaves deserved a similar reward from a nation that had supposedly fought to end their bondage. This movement inspired thousands of impoverished blacks, while simultaneously alarming many Southern legislatures and white politicians.
But Berry's book also details vigorous opposition to House's actions from such influential African-American figures as Congressmen John Mercer Langston, Thomas E. Miller and H.P. Cheatham. They used their legislative forums against House's campaign, with Langston unsuccessfully trying instead to marshal support for bills expanding educational opportunities and voting rights. Still, House's determination, along with her effectiveness as a fundraiser, temporarily made the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association a success. Her bid for slave pensions was eventually defeated, largely due to governmental pressure and interference. These actions included a dubious accusation of mail fraud under the 1873 Comstock law and finally a conviction, despite specious and inconclusive evidence, from an all-white male jury in 1917. Ironically, House was imprisoned in the same place as another maverick woman crusader, anti-war activist Emma Goldman.
Upon her release, House returned to South Nashville, where she witnessed the city's emerging black business boom during the '20s. House died in 1928, but her efforts helped lay the groundwork for the African-American cultural, economic and political activism that flowered in the decades that followed. Berry's important work should bring new attention to the contributions of Callie House.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and several other publications.