Hannah's Reviews > My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations

My Face Is Black Is True by Mary Frances Berry
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Callie House did not accomplish what she aimed to do. It is very rare to read a biography like that.

Born into slavery in 1861, she spent most of her life as a washer woman and the leader of the Ex-Slave Association. I knew nothing about the fight for ex-slave reparations, and it now seems astonishing that this was never mentioned to me in school. (And it’s a very good argument for Black History Month: You have something to learn.)

It seems simple: Human beings were forced to perform unpaid labor for centuries. A war was fought to make this stop; during the war the winning side promised reparations to the ex-slaves. The war ended and Reconstruction began. It seemed likely that ex-slaves would get what was unquestionably, legally owed to them: The $62 million in taxes collected from the cotton of the Southern rebels, from the very plantations that the ex-slaves had recently toiled on. (At one exciting point, the U.S. government promised ex-slaves the plantations of their former masters.)

Abraham Lincoln died, and repairing the unity between the North and the South seemed “more important” than giving reparations to ex-slaves. Reconstruction ended too soon. The ex-slaves were provided with no money, no land, and no schools. This created an excellent foundation for sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, and the continued inequality that exists today.

Callie House was an uneducated black woman. She was a widow with five children who dedicated her life to traveling the country, fighting in court, and organizing ex-slaves to demand reparations from Congress. Ultimately she was unsuccessful. But she held tight to a political goal for decades, despite being shot down again and again. Her fight was eventually continued by the Civil Rights Movement, only to be passed down once more to the progeny of ex-slaves and lawyers of today.

Mary Frances Berry’s book drove home for me how recent slavery was. “In 1900 … 21% of the African-American population … had been born into slavery.” I don’t know why this is surprising to me, but it was nevertheless an eye opener.

The great-great grandchildren of ex-slaves have still not been paid the money that is due to them. Nevertheless, Berry outlined the struggle to try to make this happen, highlighting the cause’s most persistent and determined fighter. As she says, “Mrs. House was just a black woman with the audacity – and no money – to stand firmly on claims of citizenship rights for herself and freedmen and freedwomen. She had much to fear.” Callie House faced 19th-century style government surveillance, censorship, false charges, and prison. She didn’t succeed, but her movement matters in United States history. Berry is right in honoring it.
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Reading Progress

February 8, 2016 – Started Reading
February 8, 2016 – Shelved
February 10, 2016 –
page 150
February 26, 2016 – Finished Reading
November 2, 2018 – Shelved as: biographies-and-memoirs

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