An African-American washerwoman seeks justice from an entrenched government.
Legal historian and activist Berry (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Pig Farmer’s Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice, 1999) unearths the tale of Callie House (1861–1928), a forgotten figure of post-Reconstruction history. The period of House’s youth, writes Berry, is considered the nadir of civil rights, “the lowest point along the long, rough road African Americans had traveled since Emancipation,” when poll taxes, literacy tests and discriminatory legislation barred blacks from voting and withheld other rights; at the same time, the federal government defaulted on its promises to grant land and financial relief to former slaves while granting amnesty to former slaveholders, even encouraging those former slaves to return to the old plantations to work as laborers. Against this climate, House founded the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association to advance proposed reparations that linked payments to those born into slavery to pensions paid to former Union soldiers. The movement, writes Berry, found opposition on all sides, and many prominent African-American newspapers and politicians derided House’s efforts as “a distraction from the struggle for political rights and a hopeless cause.” More ominously, postal officials in Tennessee, where House lived, suppressed the movement, prosecuting House for mail fraud as she solicited funds to support the organization. Though the government’s case was weak, House was imprisoned for a time, working alongside the anarchist Emma Goldman as a prison seamstress. Her movement fell into disrepair, and House lived out the last years of her life in obscurity. Berry’s careful consideration of these events is of much use to historians of the early civil-rights movement; of more interest to general readers is her epilogue, linking House’s efforts to current ones to seek financial compensation for the descendants of slaves.
A David and Goliath story in which Goliath wins.