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My face is black is true : Callie House and the struggle for ex-slave reparations
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Fiction/Biography Profile
African American women
African Americans
African American experience
Forced labor
Political activists
Black history
American history
- United States
Time Period
1861-1928 -- 19th-20th century
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  Library Journal Review

Former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and author of The Pig Famer's Daugher, Berry (history & American social thought, Univ. of Pennsylvania) has written another path-breaking book with her reconstruction of the life, times, and determined purpose of Callie House (1861- 1928). The African American laundress and seamstress from Tennessee led the 300,000-strong National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Her campaign to move Congress to pay former slaves for their coerced labors resonated as a poor people's movement and the first for mass reparations for blacks. Deftly using her skills as a historian and lawyer, Berry reassembles the elements of blacks' resolute, collective, post-emancipation development. Federal officials silenced House much as they silenced black mass organizer Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), imprisoning her for mail fraud in 1917. They failed to kill House's aim, as the current reparations debates attest. Berry's nine chapters and epilog on this heroic role model inform and inspire, demanding a reading by scholars and anyone interested in the history and politics of blacks' demands for justice. Most highly recommended for collections on U.S. and black history, politics, mass organizations, and race relations.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Publishers Weekly 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. 5-city author tour. (Sept. 8) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
"My face is black is true but its not my fault but I love my name and my honest in dealing with my fellow man." ~Callie House (1899) In her groundbreaking new book, My Face Is Black Is True, historian Mary Frances Berry resurrects the forgotten life of Callie House (1861-1928), ex-slave, widowed Nashville washerwoman and mother of five who, seventy years before the civil rights movement, headed a demand for ex-slave reparations. House was born into slavery in 1861 and sought African-American pensions based on those offered Union soldiers. In a brilliant and daring move, House targeted $68 million in taxes on seized rebel cotton (over $1.2 billion in 2005 dollars) and demanded it as repayment for centuries of unpaid labor. Dr. Berry tells how the Justice Department, persuaded by the postmaster general, banned the activities of Callie House's town organizers, violated her constitutional rights to assembly and to petition Congress, and falsely accused her of mail fraud; the federal officials had the post office open the mail of almost all African-Americans, denying delivery on the smallest pretext. Berry shows how African-American newspapers, most of which preached meekness toward whites, systematically ignored or derided Mrs. House's movement, which was essentially a poor person's movement. Despite being denied mail service and support from the African-American establishment of the day, Mrs. House's Ex-Slave Association flourished until she was imprisoned by the Justice Department for violating the postal laws of the United States; suddenly deprived of her spirit, leadership and ferocity, the first national grassroots African-American movement fell apart. Callie House, so long forgotten that her grave has been lost, emerges as a courageous pioneering activist, a forerunner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. My Face Is Black Is True is a fascinating book of original scholarship that reclaims a magnificent heroine.
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