Of all the women, living and dead, that I might invite to a dinner party, Mrs. Callie Guy House (Born approximately 186, died 1928) is at the top of my list. Mary Frances Berry introduced me to Mrs. House in her biography of this amazing woman, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Let me just say right up front, you should go read the book! Mary Frances Berry makes history come alive. She will make you wish you could claim Callie House as your ancestor.
Here are some highlights from Mrs. House’s life story.
Mrs. House was born a slave, died a free woman. She was in Tennessee in January 1865 when William Tecumseh Sherman issued his order for each adult freed male slave to claim 40 acres. She cheered when the Freedman’s Bureau promised each freed man 40 acres and then wept when President Jackson pardoned the rebels and restored their lands to them, taking away the possibility of land for freed slaves.
Along with Mr. Isaiah Dickerson, Mrs. House championed the ex-slave movement. Forty acres and one mule for three hundred years of hard work with no pay—that was not too much to ask. Mrs. House and Mr. Dickerson argued that if the government had the right to free the slaves, then the government had a responsibility to ensure provisions for them. She argued that our government made promises at Emancipation and those promises should be fulfilled.
In 1896, House and Dickerson formed the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Mrs. House must have been a force of nature as she held forth on the needs and the rights of the ex-slaves. She traveled all over the south talking to groups of freed slaves. She talked to people who were struggling to keep body and soul together. She listened to people who were turned loose — People who were illiterate, barefooted, and naked without a dollar or a pocket to put it in; people who were free but with no place to go for shelter from the wind and rain. She listened to people who were free from the man who once had the power to whip them to death, but who were still dependent on that same man who now had the power to starve them to death. Today, we argue for freedom as a prized state of being. But for the people Callie House met with, freedom meant loss. The Ex-Slave Association gave them hope. They contributed monthly dues and helped each other out with illnesses and with burials. They sent petitions to Congress. Their petitions went unanswered.
The late 1890s were many things, but they were not a time of benign neglect. In 1899, the Post Office issued a fraud order against the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association and its officers. The Post Office said that the Association and the officers could no longer use the mail because they were collecting moneys for fraudulent purposes. The Post Office kept obstructing their work. They made it difficult to collect the dues that kept the offices running. They made it difficult to put out newsletters and notices to the members. Even so, the Association found ways to struggle along. They used Wells Fargo and American Express. They used their brothers’ and sisters’ names.
But institutions are resilient and persistent and have power. On August 1916, the police arrested Mrs. House. For 20 years, she exercised her constitutional right to petition the government and taught other ex-slaves to do the same. But the Post Office accused her of using the mail to defraud people. They sent her to prison for a year. Callie House was resilient and persistent. But human beings have limits. By the time she got out of prison, the association was dead. Mrs. House was free, but she was too broken and too tired to do more than take in washing and sewing. She earned barely enough to put food on her plate. It was time for others to take up her cause. It IS time for others to take up her cause.