In this column we have featured Callie House, one of the originators of the demand for reparations, but she had several consorts in this quest, none more significant than the Rev. Isaiah Dickerson. With reparations now gaining a sizable headwind of interest from coast to coast, and during this week of celebrations around Juneteenth, it’s a fitting time to resurrect the memory of Rev. Dickerson and recount his role in the emancipation and compensation for Black Americans.
But there were many others who joined with House and Dickerson in the formation of the National Ex-Slave and Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association, and it’s interesting to learn that the great Frederick Douglass was an early proponent of restitution. In a letter addressed to Walter Vaughan, a white Democrat and ex-mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the 1890s, Douglass wrote: “The Egyptian bondsmen went out with spoils of his master, and the Russian serf was provided with farming tools and three acres of [land] upon which to begin life, but the Negro had neither spoils, implements nor lands, and today he is practically a slave on the very plantation where formerly he was driven to toil under the lash.”
In 1890, at the request of Vaughan, an ex-slave pension bill was introduced in Congress. Rather than call it a pension bill, he believed it would go further toward approval if it was “a Southern Tax-relief bill.” Complementing this measure, Vaughan established the Ex-Slave National Pension Club Association and Vaughan’s Justice Party. His commitment came under the surveillance of the government and Vaughan’s involvement in other ventures and his motives were questionable, by the turn of the century his efforts were largely forgotten.
Vaughan may have faded from memory, but there were others who launched their own organizations with a similar quest for restitution, notably Callie House and Dickerson in 1896.
Two years prior to its founding, House had openly declared that, “We deserve for the government to pay us as an indemnity for the work we and our fore parents was robbed of from the Declaration of Independence down to the Emancipation” and that “[m]y whole soul and body are for the slave movement and I am willing to sacrifice for it.”
Not much is known about Dickerson other than his being an educator and minister. This background was important in his role as general manager and national lecturer of the organization. House, a widower, laundress and mother of five, was elected as the assistant secretary of the Association.
House, Dickerson, and their associates devised an intricate plan for reparations, including a payment scale based upon age of the beneficiaries. Former slaves of 70 years and older at the time of disbursement, they cited, were to receive an initial payment of $500 and $12 monthly for the rest of their lives. Those ex-slaves aged 60 to 69 would receive $300 and $12 a month; ex-slaves aged 50 to 59 would receive $100 and $8 a month, and ex-slaves less than 50 years of age would receive a pension of $4 a month. Any formerly enslaved individual who was too old or too ill to care for themselves, a caretaker was to be compensated. In effect, the association had two goals in mind—petitioning congress for the passage of legislation to compensate ex-slaves and to provide mutual aid and burial expenses.
Paradoxically, as the association grew in numbers and reputation, it also made it a bigger concern for the government and its agencies. Unbeknownst to House and Dickerson as their mission improved, the surveillance of them intensified. Perhaps most invidious was the Post Office Department with its extensive antifraud mechanism that began issuing charges against House and Dickerson. And the more House resisted and challenged the charges the more she became targeted by governmental agencies. In fact, the very names and associates she gave the investigators only gave them more information to cast an even wider net. Nor was Dickerson free of the accusations and allegations. In 1901, he was found guilty of “swindling” in Georgia. A sentence of one year on a chain gang or a $1,000 fine was imposed on him. But the conviction was overturned later that year by the Georgia State Supreme Court.
Dickerson, along with a special examiner, A.W. Roome conducted their own inquiry about the charges against him a year after his exoneration. When Dickerson died in 1909, House consumed most of the ongoing pursuit to incriminate her. Meanwhile, under such badgering and a barrage of false accusations—as well as several arrests and indictments—House was brought to trial. After a three-day trial in 1917, she was convicted of mail fraud—a similar conviction that would all but destroy Marcus Garvey and his movement—and sentenced to one year in jail. “Unlike Vaughan, who the Commissioner of Pensions estimated collected at least $100,000 and reportedly used only $20,000, there is no evidence to show that Mrs. House profited from the movement,” according to records kept of the ex-slave pension movement.
In the same collection of records there are documents on Dickerson, located in both the ex-slave pension movement files and in the larger series of case files for the years 1862–1933.