Callie (Guy) House was born in 1861 as a slave in Tennessee. She was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. At age 22, she married and had six children. Her husband died early and she needed to find work as a washerwoman to support her family.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, former slaves had no way to earn a living. Efforts were made to give former slaves a means of independent living, but these efforts were stymied. As a result, former slaves were forced into situations that were not far from their former status as slaves.
The Freedman’s Bureau was established to aid former slaves, but President Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed the renewal of the Freedman’s Bureau and failed to enforce other efforts to support former slaves. Other efforts to provide for the living standards of former slaves were ineffective.
Former slaves decided to take action. Union soldiers were receiving pension benefits. Using this as a model, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (MRB&PA) was formed to advocate for reparations for former slaves. Callie House became a leader in advocating for pension benefits.
As the MRB&PA gained membership, three federal agencies (The Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office, and the Department of Justice) sought to stop the MRB&PA. The Post office accused MRB&PA of using the mail to defraud former slaves. There was no evidence to support these charges.
Under Callie’s leadership, the MRB&PA filed a class-action lawsuit demanding reparations based on cotton taxes collected from 1862-1868. The Supreme Court (following a tradition of bad decisions) agreed with the Appeals Court in rejecting the lawsuit.
The Post office, looking to suppress the MRB&PA, arrested Callie for fraud. She was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury and given a one-year sentence. The push for reparations continued but never had the energy as it did with Callie’s leadership.
When Callie got out of jail, she returned to her life as a laundress. She died in 1928 and was buried in an unmarked grave. While she was unsuccessful in getting reparations for former slaves during her lifetime, the effort continues. It has become more challenging as time has passed to identify ancestors of former slaves. Some communities have decided to dedicate certain funding streams for programming to lift the lives of African Americans in their community. Congress, in typical fashion, hasn’t even been able to agree to study the issue. Will Callie’s efforts ever be rewarded? Only time will tell.
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“There’s no doubt that when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans as well as other persons of color in this country, we’ve got some very sad and difficult things to account for. I personally would want to see our tragic history, or the tragic elements of our history, acknowledged. I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it’s Native Americans or African American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds..” – Barack Obama