After a week of reparations festivities this past weekend, under the auspices of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, there is a need to keep the discussion going on this important issue. There were a number of highlights from the Reparations Summit, and most memorable was the tribute to Rep. John Conyers and the closing keynote speech by Dr. Sir Hilary Beckles, one of the foremost authorities on the slave trade and the recent upsurge in the reparations movement.

Several speakers at the summit placed the reparations movement in historical context, none more brilliantly than Dr. Ron Daniels, IBW21st Century’s president, who summoned the memory of Callie House, one of the progenitors of this age-old demand to compensate the Africans whose labor was exploited during slavery.

House was born in servitude in 1861 in Rutherford County, near Nashville, Tenn. She was 18 when she married William House, and together they parented six children, five of whom survived. When her husband suddenly died, House raised her children alone, mainly working as a washerwoman and seamstress.

She began her march toward the pages of history in the late 1890s after reading a pamphlet titled “Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freedmen,” then circulating around the Black communities in central Tennessee. This pamphlet, which espoused the idea of financial compensation as a means of rectifying past exploitation of slavery, persuaded House to become involved in the cause, according to a citation from the Black Past website.

Subsequently, she and the Rev. Isaiah Dickerson traveled across the ex-slave states announcing their plan for restitution for Black captives, whose labor had been stolen from them, and recruiting followers. By the summer of 1897, their organization was formally established with a charter and titled the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. For the most part, they delivered their plan in front of church congregations, where they were warmly received.

“We are organizing ourselves together as a race of people who feels they have been wronged,” House declared upon co-founding the organization.

The organization shaped its plan in conformity with an existing one for pensions allocated to ex-soldiers of the Union Army. They also targeted the funds accumulated from the millions of dollars obtained in taxes from seized Confederate cotton. It was a stroke of genius that never truly materialized.

While there is no official count available, it was rumored that the organization had hundreds of thousands members, mostly ex-slaves who endorsed this initial campaign for reparations. It was this growing popularity that prompted the U.S. Post Office Department to begin investigating the organization. Much in the manner the Garvey movement would later be accused of using the mail to defraud people by sending them so-called bogus stock certificates, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association was similarly charged in 1899. Eventually, the organization was forbidden to send mail or to cash money orders, which meant financial death.

Two years later, the Department of Justice entered the case. Dickerson was found guilty of “swindling,” but the conviction, given the lack of evidence, was later overturned. He died in 1909, and House assumed leadership of the organization. She was unstinting in her determination to keep the organization afloat and the demand for reparations alive in the Black community and elsewhere.

“The government harassed Callie House for exercising her constitutional right to petition the government and to mobilize others in the cause,” wrote Mary Frances Berry, who grew up near House’s final home in South Nashville and wrote her biography “My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.”

At the end of her fascinating study of the activist’s life, Berry observed, “Callie House wanted ex-slaves to have economic capital on their work during slavery. Financial resources made available would strengthen mutual assistance organizations and provide a basis for economic development. She fought to address the poverty and subordination faced by ex-slaves. African-Americans in later generations have made progress, but the underlying issue of appropriate payment is still unresolved.”

One of the tactics devised by House, in conjunction with attorney Cornelius Jones, to sue the government was attempted again by attorney Charles Ogletree in the Chicago courts many years later, in which the case rested mainly on a survivor of the Tulsa race riot in 1921. This was a stratagem concocted when the plaintiffs were told the suit could not go forward without someone who had actually experienced the riot. Of course, there was no one still alive who had actually been a slave prior before the Civil War. The court ruled against Ogletree and his clients after their lone witness died of old age. It also had a chilling effect on his plan to use a similar tactic with reparations.

The reparations cause remains without settlement to this day. Even so, it’s encouraging to learn that the push for reparations has recently taken on larger, international implications and support from the Caribbean nations. What House set in motion was given momentary impetus by the Garvey movement, Queen Mother Moore, James Forman’s Black Manifesto, the Republic of New Afrika, N’COBRA (the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), such activists as Christopher Alston and Reparations Ray of Detroit and now the IBW21st Century.

It is through these individuals and their groups that House’s name continues to have resonance, continues to be a beacon in the ceaseless struggle to obtain what House believed was wrongly taken from Black workers on the farms and plantations during the reign of the “peculiar institution.”

The IRS admitted in 2002 that it had mistakenly paid out $30 million to 100,000 people for a so-called “Black tax credit,” which would be more than equivalent to the 40 acres and mule that was promised but never given to the ex-slaves. Beckles made a similar point during his comments at the Reparations Summit about the ways in which the British government, rather than making restitution for the enslavement of Africans, stole money from its own treasury for money that should have gone to those formerly in bondage.

“Reparations Now!” charged Beckles at the conclusion of the Summit at First AMEZ Church in Brooklyn Saturday evening. And House would have been on her feet with the hundreds, their fists thrust to the air, their demand palpable.

House died of cancer in 1928. She was 67.