My Face Is Black Is True

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The Civil War, Reconstruction, Emancipation and the abolition of slavery are all taught to shed positivity on bringing the nation together in freeing African Americans once and for all. Especially with the passing of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, students are taught that the ex-slaves were on the road to economic, political, and social equality. Mary Frances Berry’s My Face Is Black Is True sets out to tell the story of Callie House’s fight and struggle for ex-slave reparations after Reconstruction. This book shows that even with their newly acquired freedom, African Americans had a long and difficult journey to truly obtain their rights as citizens of the United States.

Chapter 1, entitled “We Need a Movement,” begins by giving a quick overview of who Callie House was as an activist. House was born a slave and, once free, was a washerwoman and a widow with five children. “She was at the bottom of America’s social and economic ladder.”1 From this quote the reader can see that she was an unlikely hero in the reparations movement. The chapter goes into her proudest moment, when she was elected as the first female officer of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, and ended with the statement that she ended up in jail.2 The next part of the chapter describes how the “chaos and confusion, the elation over freedom, the struggle to survive, and the scars of their bondage”3 affected the way ex-slaves viewed abolition. Had the Union stayed true to their promise of land for the ex-slaves, the reparations movement would not have been necessary. This promise gave hope to the newly freed African-Americans. Each adult male was told that he would be able to claim a forty-acre tract that was either abandoned or confiscated. However, after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the election of President Andrew Jackson, the land was restored back to the rebels. The ex-slaves were given no land, no tools, and no money after being free. Most had to resort to working for whites once again, either through sharecropping or the crop lien system.4 Next, the author explains what freedom meant to the ex-slaves. The general idea of freedom by African Americans stated that land, schooling, religious freedom, and being able to partake in politics were all important facets to freedom. Generally, having a choice in these matters was, “the essential [difference] between slavery and freedom.”5 African Americans expected whites to treat them justly. All they wanted were the rights of men. Most African Americans did not plan on leaving America, although during this time talk of emigrating back to Africa, specifically to Liberia, was a popular notion. Though the hope that came with the Civil War caused this idea to lose followers, educated blacks that wanted to be missionaries, as well as blacks that were poor and still trying to gain land, thought emigration was ideal. During this time, if ex-slaves were not interested in emigration, migrating West or North seemed more attractive. The Exodus to Kansas Movement was one of the more popular movements.6 The description of the hardships after attaining freedom, what exactly freedom meant, and the introduction of both the emigration and migration movements are important in this chapter because they help show the reader why the pension movement was so important to Callie House. The remainder of the chapter describes where House learned about creating a pension bill. A pamphlet entitled, Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freemen, was sold throughout the South and Midwest. The pamphlet was written by a white democrat named Walter Vaughan. Vaughan had the bill formed to emulate the idea of the Union veterans’ pensions that was presented to Congress. Later used by the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, the bill presented that ex-slaves be paid: $15 per month and a bounty of $500 for each ex-slave seventy years old or older....
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