Segment from Paying for the Past

Callie House & the Movement for Mass Reparations

Callie House is one of the most important – if little known – people in the history of reparations. Born a slave in 1861, she helped launch the first mass reparations movement led by African-Americans. But by the 1910s, her successes drew ire from federal officials, who accused her of committing fraud. Mary Frances Berry tells Nathan about Callie House and what her movement can teach us today.


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Brian Balogh: Today’s debate over reparations extends far beyond college campuses. Democratic presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have come out in favor of some kind of compensation for centuries of unpaid African American labor.

Nathan Connolly: Reparations is a complicated, often contentious issue that started even before slavery had ended. There’s also a lively discussion about how governments can compensate for other historical injustices, like colonialism.

Ed Ayers: But in this program we’re focusing on reparations for African Americans specifically. We’ll look as a unique moment when African Americans in Florida got compensation for the destruction of their community.

Brian Balogh: We’ll also discuss how slavery spawned a racial wealth gap that shapes the lives of millions of Americans today.

Nathan Connolly: We wouldn’t even be talking about reparations today if it wasn’t for Callie House. In the late 19th century she helped launch the first mass reparations movement led by African Americans.

Mary Frances B.: Callie House was a remarkable woman. Here you have somebody who was a slave who only went to education in what we call the elementary grades, K, four, five. Mother was a washerwoman and she, in fact, was a washerwoman herself. And yet she ends up having enough vision to start a pension movement for old people, like the old people who had been slaves, at a time where there was no Social Security.

Nathan Connolly: Mary Frances Berry is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Callie House.

Mary Frances B.: To do it as a woman at a time at the late 19th century, women did not run organizations that had men and women in them. She’s just incomprehensible in a way and so unique and took so many risks and was so courageous.

Nathan Connolly: Did you see anything in her early life or young adulthood that might have shaped her activism?

Mary Frances B.: Callie House was sitting in church and heard the preacher and this white man who had come through there, Mr. Bond, come through and talk about how people ought to join an organization that he had that was going to get pensions for the old ex-slaves. As she listened to what he said, she thought this doesn’t make any sense because, first of all, I don’t know how he’s going to do that. But if he can do that, then we could just do that for ourselves. We don’t need him to come around signing up people and collecting dues from them.

Mary Frances B.: There was a Black man who was working with him. She started talking to him about how to do this. So she decided, well, we should just do it ourselves. Why don’t we? She remembered that when she was in school they read the Constitution. She said the Constitution has something in there about … She said titioning your government, not petitioning your government. And therefore we can tition the government ourselves. So she asked him how did they go about doing this. He said, well, they paid members of Congress to introduce bills. They’ve had lawyers with the dues they collected. What you do is you ask the Congress whether they will, in fact, give pensions to the old people. That is how she got started thinking about it.

Nathan Connolly: One of the things that you’ve outlined quite compellingly is that in the modern moment, more contemporary moment when people talk about reparations, one of the things that they say is that you don’t have people who are being compensated who directly experienced slavery. So it makes it very muddy and murky to imagine any kind of compensation that wouldn’t go directly to those who suffered the most profound aggrievements. But you’re pointing to a moment in the late 19th century where those, as you describe it, who are literally bearing the welts and the scars of the master’s lash are themselves demanding some kind of reparations.

Nathan Connolly: Just give me some sense about the mass movement that you’re describing that Callie House is organizing is looking like. How does the movement itself really begin to pick up steam?

Mary Frances B.: Well, she traveled around. By that time, her children were old enough that the older ones could take care of the younger ones because her husband died. So she was able to leave them there. She traveled around on trains, going places. They collected dues, five cents, whatever people had. They used the money to support this movement and the transportation. The other thing she did which people very much appreciated, as she traveled around she had people who could write sign their names to these petitions. The people who couldn’t write, somebody else would write it for them.

Mary Frances B.: She said, “I’m going to collect the names of everybody who was a slave so that if they ever give us anything, somebody can look back here and see who the people were.” There were chapters of this ex-slave pension movement, not just in the South, but there were also chapters in the North. There was a chapter in New York. There were chapters in Ohio. There were chapters out in the Black towns. There were chapters everywhere there were any Black folk who had been slaves, there were chapters of this movement. So it was nationwide.

Mary Frances B.: Now the Pension Bureau, when it got very concerned about what they were doing and all the meetings, they said, “We have to go and do something about this woman because this woman is dangerous. She has these Negroes thinking that somebody is going to give them something for their work and we know we’re not going to give them anything. What are they going to do when they find out we’re not giving them anything? We need to stop her in her tracks.”

Nathan Connolly: Now the federal government prosecutes Callie House and basically drags her into court. I’m curious what their argument was in the case against her.

Mary Frances B.: Right. It was the most heartbreaking and frivolous argument. They said that we’re going to go after her for fraud. We’re going to say that what is the fraud? At a time when she knew or should have known that the federal government would never give those Negroes anything, she went out organizing Negroes to try to get something. So therefore that’s fraud. She went out organizing people and sending petitions to the Congress and hiring lawyers and arguing in the public forum, the public square, that these Negroes should get a pension. She should have known that we were never going to give them anything.

Mary Frances B.: So she was misleading these Negroes and they were gullible. She might have been trying to make some money out of it because she might have been collecting the dues to enrich herself. But the fraud was she should have known that the government would never give them anything. So she shouldn’t have been telling them that they should try to get something.

Nathan Connolly: Were there specific agencies that were collaborating in this effort?

Mary Frances B.: Yes. The Pension Bureau was the agency with its lawyers that were out tracking and sent the undercover people, and then the Justice Department was the litigation arm of doing this, bringing this litigation. It was the success of her movement, the fact that it kept growing and the letters that they kept getting from these folks in the communities, white folks, saying, “We don’t know what the Negroes are going to do, whatever, whatever.” But they decided to go after them because it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. They said, “We can’t control it.”

Mary Frances B.: So they put together this litigation strategy, accused her of that, charged her in the federal district court in Nashville, obviously with an all-white, male jury. They lied to the court. They told the court that she had no chapters, that this was just something she made up, that there really wasn’t any organization. She had just pretended she had an organization. Now the court, of course, convicted her. On the day that they convicted her, all of these Black people came down to the court and the press reported that they were out there singing and crying and lamenting, that it was a great, sad display by all the Black people who came from miles around to be there to try to support her.

Mary Frances B.: They convicted her and they sent her off to prison in Jefferson City, Missouri where the women were sent in those days.

Nathan Connolly: Give me a sense of what’s happening to the wider reparations movement while Callie House is incarcerated. And is there any sense at all that there are those who are carrying her banner even if she might not be on the streets?

Mary Frances B.: Well, I found that the movement continued while she was in prison and when she got out. She was not involved, but it continued. When she got of prison, she was sick and shortly after that she died. In some places the chapters became Garvey chapters, Marcus Garvey chapters, because Marcus Garvey supported reparations. In other places, they kept their name. In Atlanta, for example, I have a picture of one of the people at the Atlanta chapter. They would collect money and go out and help other poor Negroes as a mission that they kept up while they were there.

Mary Frances B.: Other places all around the country where there were chapters, they just continued on. You can trace from then all the way up to the modern reparations movement with organizations like NCOBRA and all the rest of them that exist. You have people who came out of those movements and have simply just perpetuated the cause since that time. So it didn’t die as a result of them getting her. It inhibited the movement forward, but the movement didn’t die.

Nathan Connolly: Well, this is one of the things that is just so incredible about this story. I mean you’re actually describing somebody in Callie House who really is an architect for what becomes longer, deeper streams of Black nationalism through the 20th century. One organization literally is morphing into another one. I mean you have basically the precursor to the Garvey movement, and as we know, the Garvey movement becomes foundational not just for NCOBRA, but also for members of the Nation of Islam and then there are obviously other forms of Black nationalism that are coming out of that.

Nathan Connolly: And yet with all that we know about people like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and certainly other activists across the South, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Callie House, as you know better than most, is relatively unknown. I’m curious about what your research helps to explain why she’s so overlooked.

Mary Frances B.: The first thing is that we have a paradigm about what different periods of Black history are supposed to be about. We still think that the late 19th century and early 20th century is about WEB and Booker T. No matter what you say and the club women, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and others, pushed them in there a little bit. But basically it’s still Booker T. and WEB and the men. Also at a time when we were pointing to great or first among Negroes, mainly first to get educated, first to do this and that and the other, here she was this barely educated woman who in many ways for the elites would be an embarrassment.

Mary Frances B.: And yet here she is up speaking to people and big groups and going around churches talking to people and have people believing in her and being an honest poor person who is able to do this and have 300,000 dues-paying members. That’s more than any other Black organization had up to that time. I don’t know how many have that members now. But it’s just quite extraordinary, but she does not fit the storyline of what Black history is supposed to be. Also so many people don’t believe in reparations or if they do believe in it, Black people, they’re afraid to talk about it. So that since she was about pensions which convert to reparations, then that means … and it’s Black nationalism, which some people think that you shouldn’t talk about or that that’s not really a theme we would be interested in.

Nathan Connolly: You have an effort on Callie House’s part to really document who exactly was enslaved, where they were, their experience is obviously going to be critical to any reparations movement. I’m curious about how we might be able to build directly on Callie House’s labor and that of her organization which is namely to say, can we take the actual membership lists that were compiled by the national ex-slave associations and their various chapters and begin a very concrete discussion about reparations? If we could, what would that look like?

Mary Frances B.: Well, somebody needs to go. I tell people, “You should go down to the National Archives and look at those lists yourself and find your folk and find other people’s folk.” That’s the first thing that you should do. And then after you do that, somebody should trace … maybe one of the organizations should trace all of these people whose names are there. If a reparations ever come to pass, there is an argument for a policy that gives something to slave descendants. I call them American slave descendants. That whether or not they’re on that list because she wasn’t able to put everybody on the list. That was a goal, but she didn’t achieve that.

Mary Frances B.: But there’s no reason why you can’t start with the people whose names are there and say, “Well, okay. We’re not going to try to give everybody one by one $100 or whatever it is we’re going to give. But at least these people we know and then let’s see what we do for the larger group of people.”

Nathan Connolly: Mary Frances Berry is a Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also the author of My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.

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Paying for the Past Lesson Set

Download the full lesson set.

Though the American Civil War concluded over 150 years ago, its effects still resonate in the social, economic, and political lives of millions of Americans. At the conclusion of the war, the federal government made efforts to rebuild the lives of former slaves. Though many of these “Reconstruction Era” efforts were well-meaning, they faced stiff opposition from former slave owners and politicians who did not want to enfranchise African Americans. As a result, many freed slaves faced generational socioeconomic hurdles preventing upward mobility.

21st century politicians and economists are still grappling with how to best address significant disparities in wealth and racial equality. One frequently discussed idea is the payment of reparations to descendants of former slaves. The goal is to properly fulfill the failed promise of Reconstruction Era policies and fight against systemic and historical barriers to advancement. However, these policies come in many different forms and are contentious for many Americans.

This lesson focuses on different aspects of reparations throughout American history. The goal is to force students to confront questions about how to best address ongoing disparities of race, wealth, and justice. How has the United States tried to address these questions in the past? Why has reparations endured as controversial issue in American politics today?