Callie House: The Pursuit of Reparations as a Means for Social Justice

By Turner, James | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Callie House: The Pursuit of Reparations as a Means for Social Justice


Turner, James, The Journal of African American History


"Who Are These Unsung Women"

Who are these women
Resisting like flares
against the darkness and the unseen

Who are these flames
triumphantly melting the weights of despair
like blazing summers

Firecracker women penetrating global hailstones
of bitter suffering and the blues

Who are they
that dare not wilt
moving like ripples of no regrets, ultra-violet
sunbeams in cold-blooded battlefields

Who are these Unsung Women

Who are my mother

Who are my history

Who are these gentlewomen.

Verano (1)

Mary Frances Berry's most recent book My Face Is Black Is True is a compelling account of the long history of African Americans' claims for reparations. However, the center of the text is focused on the fascinating story of the remarkable Mrs. Callie House, an African American woman born into slavery in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. This political biography is a critically important history of the beginnings of the reparations movement that pressed the claims for monetary compensation on behalf of those African men and women whose labor had been brutally exploited in the plantation system that formed the basis of agrarian capitalism and was characterized by deep racial divisions. Racial capitalism in the United States set the model for the modern economic systems that propagated expansive forms of white supremacy and systemic racism. Massive appropriation of value from the commerce in black bodies and the labor of African workers were the bases for previously unparalleled accumulation of wealth upon which modern capitalism emerged, Europe developed, and the United States and other nations in the Americas were formed. Slavery was essential to the making of the United States and the "Atlantic world." African American intellectual and social historian Harold Cruse made the point that "American civilization, as we know it, would not have been built without ... the enslavement of Africans." (2)

After the Civil War, these formerly enslaved African Americans were poor and landless; Callie House described them as "bare-footed and naked." Though unschooled and given nothing with which to start a new life, these people constructed reparations as a principle of social justice. Moreover, black workers were not passive about the injustices, and they demanded land, instruments to cultivate it, and compensation for their stolen labor. The injustices were aggravated further by the blatant racism of the military officials in the postbellum federal government. For the most part, white Civil War veterans were given financial grants and monthly pensions for military service. Black soldiers were denied equal treatment; in fact, their petitions for pensions were often rejected. Harriett Tubman, who willingly risked her life on numerous occasions in service of the Union Army, was likewise refused a pension by the federal government. Black men and women, most of them free persons numbering in the hundreds of thousands, volunteered to support the Union war effort and provided the critical balance of force necessary to defeat the Confederate Army. These gallant fighters in the aftermath of the war were betrayed by the very government they were willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve. Black soldiers fought to abolish slavery and were rewarded with racist government policies that enforced a rigid system of legal segregation, or American apartheid. This is what historian Rayford Logan referred to as the "The Nadir" in the African American experience during this post-Reconstruction period. (3)

Enslaved at birth, Callie House knew intimately the social and economic conditions of her people, and identified with the plight of the masses of African Americans. She was rooted in the southern, urban, black working class. As a child during the Reconstruction, Callie Guy may have received her education by attending one of the independent schools established, financed, and staffed by African Americans. …

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