From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The African-American struggle for compensation for years of unpaid labor began at the dawn of emancipation. In this account of "the first mass reparations movement led by African Americans," historian and lawyer Berry (The Pig Farmer's Daughter), who chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, unearths the intriguing story of Callie House (1861– 1928), a Tennessee washerwoman and seamstress become activist, and the organization she led, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Not much is known about House's private life; to re-create it Berry extrapolates from historical knowledge of ex-slaves building schools and churches, forming mutual aid societies, attempting to secure the vote, trying to find adequate employment and managing to survive violent repression. The association's public record is more detailed. House was familiar with the work of Walter Vaughan, a white Democrat interested in giving a boost to the postbellum Southern economy, who "first proposed the ex-slave pension," and House set out "to put the name of every ex-slave on a petition asking Congress to pass a bill providing pensions." As the organization grew, so did government harassment by postal authorities, who succeeded in convicting House of mail fraud. Callie House and her historic role deserve to be brought out of the shadows, and Berry achieves that superbly. Students and scholars of African-American history, as well as those engaged in the current reparations debates, will be deeply informed by the rise and fall of the Ex-Slave Association.
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*Starred Review* Callie House, a seamstress and laundress born into slavery in 1861, defied the conventions of race, class, and sex to lead a 30-year campaign to secure pensions for former slaves. In 1899, in Nashville, she helped to create the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association to also provide aid to the poor and the sick. House recognized the need for pensions to support former slaves left aged and destitute and as a reward for blacks who served in the Union army, even as the government provided pensions to white Union veterans and sought to compensate Southern plantation owners. The reparations campaign provoked the ire of the U.S. Postal Service, which charged House and her compatriots with mail fraud and subjected them to scrutiny, harassment, and prosecution. In 1915, nearly bankrupt, the association switched tactics and filed a lawsuit claiming that a cotton tax levied to support the war should pay for a pension for ex-slaves; the suit lost on the grounds of government immunity. House was eventually imprisoned for her activities and died in 1928. Berry brings this heroic but little-known woman to life in the broader view of efforts--including current ones--to procure reparations for 300 years of slavery. Vanessa Bush
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