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My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations Hardcover – September 6, 2005

4.8 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040035
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040032
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #716,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of nine books. The recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees, she has been chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a regular contributor to Politico, and has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, and PBS's NewsHour.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is powerful and sadly overdue. Who knew that ex-slaves fought for reparations themselves right after emancipation? As an American, I am outraged to learn that the United States government denied them their First Amendment right to petition the government for reparations by falsely imprisoning all the movement's leaders! I am also amazed to learn that the first mass movement of Black people for justice in this country was led by a woman -- Callie House. She and all those imprisoned for this well organized, peaceful, and just effort must be exonerated. Our President and the Members of Congress can and must exonerate them now!
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Format: Hardcover
This wellwritten and extensively researched book reveals not only the drive and persistence of post-Civil War African Americans in seeking reparations for ex-slaves and war veterans, but what can be accomplished with little more than a basic ability to read and write and a talent for organizing and motivating one's colleagues. Callie House is truly an American heroine and her efforts to help black citizens obtain what they richly deserved from the U.S. government, despite obstacles which would have made a lesser person roll over, should be recognized and remembered.
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Format: Hardcover
Berry's brilliance as a scholar is exhibited in this text. She not only introduces the heroine Callie House, as a significant revolutionary who served jailed time for her leadership in this reparations movement, Berry uses House's story as a foundation to report how former enslaved Africans were mistreated systematically. Through use of a plethora of the state of Tennessee records, scholarly materials and various other documents, Dr. Berry introduces the first reparations movement to the reader.

It was often painful to read how former enslaved persons were treated as freedpersons, since all 8 of my great-grandparents were born between the 1870s to 1890. Knowing that they were children when their parents were so sorely abused was a very vivid and poignant point.
Dr. Berry is to be commended for creating this historiography that not only revealed House's story, it showed how callous the federal government was toward Black people during Reconstruction, and that this callousness trickled to the vicissitudes of everyday life and toil, from healthcare, employment, shelter, and a quality of life that all people deserve to have. Five starts to the senior scholar! - Colita Nichols Fairfax
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Format: Paperback
As a historian and lover of obscure history in particular, I have to give Miss Berry (who I met in 1999 at a historian's conference in Toronto and found to be an excellent conversationalist) high marks for the untold story of Callie House.

Callie House tried to form an organization to encourage the government to grant living ex-slaves (this was in the early 20th century when many were still alive). She tried to do this with many strikes against her, facing racism, sexism, and classism (she did not have much formal education). Unfortuantely, government harrassment tried to destroy her movement.

As mentioned, little is documented about Miss House's personal life, but being a Tennesseean like Miss House, Miss Berry does a good job in using her knowledge of the area and historical documents to fill in the holes.

However, in the last chapter Miss Berry links Miss House's movement to the modern day reparations movement. One can argue that there is a considerable stretch between the noble effort of a woman to get deserved pensions for elderly ex-slaves and the modern snowball's chance in hell Quioxtic endeavor to get reperations for the descendants of long-dead slaves, but Miss Berry tries to put a good face on the modern movement. She notes the 2002 reparations march, forgetting to mention that it was very poorly attended and almost universally dismissed for its outlandish and crackpot speeches and states that the reparations movement is mostly supported by the poor black masses (I have to disagree- in my experience it has usually been supported by a segment of black nationalists with some high school or college education).

But that's another story, I'll admit. In either case, regardless of your opinions of the current debate, this is a VERY good and interesting read.
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Format: Hardcover
Since the Civil Rights Movement it seems most "Whites" and amazingly even some "Blacks" have bought the argument that slavery and its legacy were so long ago that no living African-American could rightfully claim being a victim of it.

This book shows that argument as being just another shameless attempt to avoid owning up to our nation's original sin. The fact that "White" leaders right after the Civil War used other equally specious rationales to avoid paying the piper for their unconscionable crime is telling. Ms. Berry's book should definitely be taught in every school in our guilty nation. And broadcast on every so-called news show. I'll hold my breath until Hollywood decides to make the movie.

"My Face Is Black Is True" is a must-read for any American who considers themselves educated.
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Format: Hardcover
This book really gives one PRIDE in knowing that people exsisted like CALLI HOUSE. Whatever ones ethicity, this is a book which should be read by all and the educational system should make this be a requiremnet. The population must be told and ugly story of what SLAVERY was and still is in the HYPOCRITICAL united staes.
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