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Callie House is most famous for her efforts to gain reparations for former slaves and is regarded as the earliest leader of the reparations movement among African American political activists. Callie Guy was born a slave in Rutherford Country near Nashville, Tennessee. Her date of birth is usually assumed to be 1861, but due to the lack of birth records for slaves, this date is not certain. She was raised in a household that included her widowed mother, sister, and her sister’s husband.
In 1883, she married William House, a possible relation to her sister’s husband, and together they had five children. For an occupation, House took in laundry from other Black folks and from white patrons to support her family. In the mid-1890s, possibly spurred by greater economic opportunities and wider kinship networks, Callie House moved her family to south Nashville.
In 1891, a pamphlet entitled Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freedmen began circulating around the Black communities in central Tennessee. This pamphlet, which espoused the idea of financial compensation as a means of rectifying past exploitation of slavery, persuaded House to become involved in the cause that would become her life’s work.
With the help of Isaiah Dickerson, House chartered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, and was named the secretary of this new organization.
Callie House and Dickerson traveled extensively throughout southern and border states gathering support for the new organization that would provide relief and services on a local level while agitating for reparations on a national level.
Eventually, House became the leader of the organization. During her 1897-1899 lecture tour the association’s membership grew by 34,000 mainly through her efforts. By 1900, its nationwide membership was estimated to be around 300,000.
And while her efforts to pass meaningful reparations was as legitimate then as it is now, she too, faced backlash.
Even this past weekend, activists, economists, politicians, and members of the public packed a room at the California Science Center in Los Angeles to talk about reparations. Members of the California Reparations Task Force, a first-of-its-kind group, gathered for their tenth meeting to grapple with some of the difficult questions they have yet to answer about what California owes to descendants of slavery.
Yet over 100 years ago, nationally, the Ex-Slave Pension Association held conventions, elected national officers, and worked for the passage of congressional legislation in support of ex-slave reparations. The national organization also provided traveling expenses to reparation lobbyists and local chapter organizers. Additionally, it corresponded with local chapters, which responded by paying national dues to further the goal of a reparation bill that would provide monetary compensation of ex-slaves for their labor in the antebellum American South.
Yet and still, Callie House and her organization faced opposition from both African American leaders and government officials. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois largely ignored the reparations movement, focusing their energy on promoting education and defending equal treatment for African Americans within a white supremacist culture.
Many white southerners viewed (and continue to view) the reparations movement with suspicion; they saw Callie House’s organizing efforts as confusing and misleading to African Americans. From the white perspective, there was no chance of Congress passing reparation legislation; so whites assumed that the organizing efforts of House and Dickerson were defrauding African Americans of their hard-earned money.
Like most Black leaders throughout American history, the U.S. Pensions Bureau began to covertly surveil Callie House and the association. The Comstock Act of 1873 and its later revisions gave the U.S. Post Office wide powers to deem any piece of mail fraudulent and deny the use of mail to persons engaged in fraud or perceived fraud. In 1899, Callie House received notice that the Post Office had issued a fraud order against her and her organization, ostensibly because they were, according to postal authorities, soliciting money under false pretenses.
In 1916, U.S. Postmaster General A.S. Burleson sought indictments against leaders of the association claiming that they obtained money from ex-slaves by fraudulent circulars proclaiming that pensions and reparations were forthcoming. Although the evidence was weak, an all-male, white jury convicted Callie House on the charge of mail fraud, House was convicted and served time in the Jefferson City, Missouri penitentiary from November 1917 to August 1918.
Following her release from prison, she resumed her work as a laundress in her local south Nashville community.
Callie House died from cancer in Nashville, Tennessee on June 6, 1928 and is buried in the old Mt. Ararat cemetery in Nashville.