Black Women's Politics, Narratives of Sexual Immorality, and Pension Bureaucracy in Mary Lee's North Carolina Neighborhood

By Brimmer, Brandi C. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Black Women's Politics, Narratives of Sexual Immorality, and Pension Bureaucracy in Mary Lee's North Carolina Neighborhood


Brimmer, Brandi C., The Journal of Southern History


ON THURSDAY, MAY 10, 1894, EMMITT D. GALLION, FROM THE Special Examination Division of the U.S. Pension Bureau, discovered that Mary Lee, a forty-four-year-old black Civil War soldier's widow, had buried a child earlier that year. He believed Lee was in violation of the Act of August 7, 1882, and went directly to her home in New Bern, North Carolina. This law denied or terminated a widow's veteran pension if she was involved in a sexual relationship with a man or otherwise deemed sexually immoral and unchaste. When Gallion arrived, he found Lee talking with a disabled black veteran on the front steps of her home. Gallion began questioning Lee from the street: "I want to know how long your Husband been Dead that you had Child and Buried him." She responded, "I had no Child of my own by Birth, but I had one given to me by the City Authorities." Gallion called her a "Liar" and asserted he would have her thrown off the roll. Lee told him, "I had no men, and admonished him to "go away ... my House is no Quarling House." She then went inside and shut the door. Six days later she filed charges of "slander" against Gallion at the Craven County Courthouse and lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of the Interior, which held supervisory power over the Pension Bureau's decisions. (1)

The dispute between Mary Lee and Emmitt Gallion and the charges of sexual immorality he hurled at her were part of a broader campaign to curb fraudulent excess within the pension system that followed the expansion of the system in 1890. This article examines working-class black women's claims to Union veteran widowhood and analyzes how those claims changed in response to the 1882 law and to shifts in the local social and political context after Reconstruction. It follows Mary Lee's dealings with the examiners from the Pension Bureau and with municipal leaders, both black and white, to illuminate how women argued their claims and assisted others in navigating the pension system. (2) It takes place in eastern North Carolina, especially in the streets of New Bern, a port city in Craven County, an area that had long been an important staging ground for black political struggles but especially so for black Union veterans and their families in the late-nineteenth-century South. Here black Union widows directly engaged officials from the Special Examination Division, who, for these women, constituted the face of the U.S. Pension Bureau. (3)

Working-class black women's interactions with the U.S. Pension Bureau through its special examination system constituted a significant dimension of late-nineteenth-century political history. (4) Not only did these women petition the bureau for survivors' benefits, but also they registered complaints about the 1882 law, which allowed examiners to intrude into individuals' private lives before and after they were admitted to the pension rolls. Scholars have recovered a broad spectrum of political discourse initiated by black middle-class reformers in the late-nineteenth-century South. As the disenfranchisement of black men and racial segregation eliminated access to many traditional means of political expression within southern black communities, middle-class black women remade themselves, using arguments about respectability to justify their public presence and building on their long history of voluntary social work and political networking in behalf of their communities. (5) The narratives that emerge from the pension files indicate that working-class black women pursued an altogether different course of action. Women like Mary Lee from Union-occupied areas of eastern North Carolina began petitioning the federal government for survivors' benefits on the basis of their status as the wives and widows of black Union soldiers as early as 1866. Issues of poverty and economic survival, not respectability, formed the basis of their early claims. (6) Examining black women's petitions for survivors' benefits and their responses to the 1882 law adds new depth to the history of black political culture in the New South because it shows how working-class women used their direct relationship with the federal government to refute charges of sexual immorality and assert the terms of their citizenship within a bureaucratic system. …

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