In Search of Callie House and the Origins of the Modern Reparations Movement

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I appreciate the comments from these prominent scholars who participated in the ASALH plenary session and this book forum on My Face Is Black Is True. I hope their reactions encourage the widespread acceptance of Callie House and the Ex-Slave Movement in the historiography of the African American experience. Darlene Clark Hine aptly places the narrative in the distinct field of "Liberation Historiography." She also finds it a worthy addition to the field of black women's history. If scholars are moved to reassessment based on this study, it would, as she notes, be a clear example of how the marginalized, the overlooked, and rejected are at the center of our history.

Daryl Scott's very perceptive analysis reinforces my hope that the narrative adds to our understanding of the many ways in which government harassment of social change movements occurred. The Ex-Slave Movement may have promoted a radical idea, but its actions were not really radical--it relied on exercising every person's First Amendment right to petition the government.

Scott is also struck by how much the fate of the movement reflected the class divisions among African Americans then and now. He believes my analysis "raises the question of whether black elites, largely drawn from the middle and upper classes, can ever be adequate leaders of the masses of blacks." But I also recognize, as Callie House did, that the elite's goals of an education and voting rights bill were quite appropriate, but they were too exclusive in rejecting the pension claim. Perhaps dissembling, as Clark Hine describes how black women did not speak of being raped, well-off African Americans who published newspapers and founded acceptable self-help organizations or denounced Jim Crow, remained silent about the Ex-Slave Association because of the lower class origins of its leaders and membership. I wonder if the fear that these middle-class leaders might become government targets affected their decisions to reject the pension cause. Scott wonders about the attitude of black intellectuals whom I do mention in the book. In examining correspondence and secondary works on this group, I found no discussion of the pension cause. In many cases, the civil rights activists were also intellectual elites.

James Turner is attracted by what the study shows about African Americans and social movements. Like slave rebellions, and the antebellum black convention movement before, and other movements since, he believes it is a clear example of how "African American people created an indigenous, integrated political culture." He believes the Association's story should cause a "shift in African American historiography."

I did not really consider the place of this work in the historiography of the African American experience until after I was well along and began to think about the possible audience for the study. Thereafter, I tried to keep in mind the various theoretical and methodological issues posed as my research revealed findings that differed from the conventional wisdom. The best way for me to underscore these points,

I believe, is to describe the research methodology I pursued, which led in and out of many blind alleys along the way.

I first learned of Callie House and the Ex-Slave Pension Movement from a Detroit labor movement activist, Christopher Alston, some years ago. I gained the distinct impression that knowledge of the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association and of Callie House traveled North by word of mouth with those who joined the great African American migration to work in the automobile factories of the Motor City in the early 20th century. Perhaps black migrants to Chicago carried the message there. Alston, inspired by the comments of a retired black auto worker who recalled that there had been a movement to gain pensions as reparations, found records, and believed that additional sources could be found in the National Archives. …