By Miranda Booker Perry
The Union victory in the Civil War helped pave the way for the 13th amendment to formally abolish the practice of slavery in the United States. But following their emancipation, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education—the keys to their economic independence.
Efforts to help them achieve some semblance of economic freedom, such as with “40 acres and a mule,” were stymied. Without federal land compensation—or any compensation—many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders.
“The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved,” wrote Carter G. Woodson in The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s.
In the late 19th century, the idea of pursuing pensions for ex-slaves—similar to pensions for Union veterans—took hold. If disabled elderly veterans were compensated for their years of service during the Civil War, why shouldn’t former slaves who had served the country in the process of nation building be compensated for their years of forced, unpaid labor?
By 1899, “about 21 percent of the black population nationally had been born into slavery,” according to historian Mary Frances Berry. Had the government distributed pensions to former slaves and their caretakers near the turn of the century, there would have been a relatively modest number of people to compensate.
But the movement to grant pensions to ex-slaves faced strong opposition, and the strongest came not from southerners in Congress but from three executive branch agencies. It was opposition impossible to overcome.
Land Allocation Efforts Stymied by the Johnson Administration
In the late stages of the Civil War and in its aftermath, the federal government (primarily Republicans) tried to relieve destitution among freedpeople and help them gain economic independence through attempts to allocate land. These efforts, both military and legislative, help explain why African Americans thought that compensation was attainable.
Special Field Orders No. 15, issued by Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1865, promised 40 acres of abandoned and confiscated land in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida (largely the Sea Islands and coastal lands that had previously belonged to Confederates) to freedpeople. Sherman also decided to loan mules to former slaves who settled the land.
But these efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freedpeople were abruptly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 issued by the Freedmen’s Bureau on September 12, 1865, coupled with Johnson’s presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles, freedpeople were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson’s restoration program.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Act had been established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom. Section four of the act authorized the bureau to rent no more than 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freedpeople and loyal white refugees for a term of three years. At the end of the term, or at any point during the term, the male occupants renting the land had the option to purchase it and would then receive a title to the land.
But Johnson’s restoration policy rendered section four null and void and seriously thwarted bureau officials’ efforts to help the newly emancipated acquire land.
In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give freedpeople and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.
But homesteading was problematic on many different levels. The short period allotted by Congress (six months) worked against freedpeople because most were under contract to work or had leased land, through the bureau’s contract labor policy, until the end of the year.
Congress also underestimated the time it would take for freedmen and loyal whites to successfully complete the process of securing a homestead. This process involved filing claims, waiting indefinitely until offices opened or reopened, and working to secure enough money to purchase land. Concurrently, freedpeople faced southern white opposition to settling land.
Moreover, Congress provided no tools, seed, rations, or any form of additional assistance to freedpeople, and most freedpeople’s earnings just covered the bare necessities of life. Maintaining a homestead without assistance was almost impossible under those circumstances.
On March 11, 1867, House Speaker Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania introduced a bill (H.R. 29) that outlined a plan for confiscated land in the “confederate States of America.” Section four of the proposed bill explicitly called for land to be distributed to former slaves:
Out of the lands thus seized and confiscated, the slaves who have been liberated by the operations of the war and the amendment of the Constitution or otherwise, who resided in said “confederate States” on the 4th day of March, A.D. 1861 or since, shall have distributed to them as follows namely: to each male person who is the head of a family, forty acres; to each adult male, whether the head of the family or not, forty acres; to each widow who is the head of a family, forty acres; to be held by them in fee simple, but to be inalienable for the next ten years after they become seized thereof. . . . At the end of ten years the absolute title to said homesteads shall be conveyed to said owners or to the heirs of such as are then dead.
Stevens knew that if federal land redistribution legislation failed to pass, freedpeople would be at the whim of former slaveholders for years to come. In support of his bill, he stated, “Withhold from them all their rights and leave them destitute of the means of earning a livelihood, [and they will become] the victims of the hatred or cupidity of the rebels whom they helped to conquer.”
Republicans, during the 1868 campaign, even promised 40 acres and a mule to freedpeople. A couple of decades passed before any further concerted efforts were made to provide economic relief and security for ex-slaves, and when there was another major effort, it was not by the government but by former slaves and their allies.
Ex-Slave Pension Movement Begins as the Century Ends
By the last decade of the 19th century, the idea of trying to procure the enactment of pension legislation for ex-slaves for their years of unpaid labor was put into action.
The concept of ex-slave pensions was modeled after the Civil War–era program of military service pensions, and the first ex-slave pension bill (H.R. 11119) was introduced by Rep. William Connell of Nebraska in 1890.
It was introduced at the request of Walter R. Vaughan of Omaha, a white Democrat and ex-mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa. He did not believe that it, or subsequent bills, should be identified as a pension bill but instead as “a Southern-tax relief bill.” Vaughan recognized that pensions would financially benefit former slaves and would indeed be a semblance of justice for their years of forced labor. But the outcome he looked for involved ex-slaves spending their pensions in the South in order to give the devastated southern economy a financial boost.
The push for ex-slave pensions gained momentum in the 1890s and continued into the early 20th century. This grassroots movement was composed largely of former slaves, their family members, and friends. It emerged during the nadir of American race relations, roughly 1877 into the early 20th century.
Racial segregation officially became the law of the land with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision, which upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Lynchings and race riots were at an all-time high, while civil rights and legal recourse for blacks were virtually nonexistent. Throughout the South, black men were disenfranchised and could not serve on juries.
The pension movement flourished in spite of, or even because of, these obstacles.
There were a number of ex-slave pension organizations within the movement—the National Ex-Slave Pension Club Association of the United States (Vaughan’s Justice Party); the Ex-Slave Petitioners’ Assembly; the Great National Ex-Slave Union: Congressional, Legislative and Pension Association of the U.S.A.; the Ex-Slave Pension Association; the Ex Slave Department Industrial Association of America; and others—but there is a paucity of documentation for groups other than the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association of the United States of America (MRB&PA). The ex-slave pension organizations did not work together collectively, but there is evidence that officers of at least a few of these organizations were interested in joining forces and consolidating their groups.
The MRB&PA was chartered on August 7, 1897, and had a dual mission: to petition Congress for the passage of legislation that would grant compensation to ex-slaves, particularly elderly ex-slaves, and to provide mutual aid and burial expenses.
The association collected membership fees in order to help defray lobbying costs, printing/publication expenses, and travel expenses of the national officers. Monthly dues were reserved for mutual aid purposes (to aid the sick, the disabled, and for burial expenses). Ex-slaves and their allies gave their meager resources to help further the movement because they believed in the organization’s mission. Dedication and charisma characterized the leaders of the association and enabled them to mobilize the masses.
By the late 1890s, the MRB&PA was the premiere ex-slave pension organization, claiming a membership in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to having a strong grassroots following, the MRB&PA was highly organized. The national officers established a charter, drafted a constitution and by-laws, held annual conventions, formed an executive board, started local chapters mostly in the South and Midwest, established enrollment fees and dues, advertised through circulars and broadsides, and advocated unity of purpose.
The organization supported a proposed pension payment scale based upon the age of beneficiaries that appeared in every ex-slave bill from 1899 onward. Ex-slaves 70 years and older at the time of disbursement were to receive an initial payment of $500 and $15 a month for the rest of their lives; those aged 60–69 years old would receive $300 and $12 a month; those aged 50–59 years old would receive $100 and $8 a month; and those under 50 would receive a $4 a month pension. If formerly enslaved persons were either very old or too ill to care for themselves, their caretakers were to be compensated.
Once a freedperson reached a certain age threshold, he or she would then be eligible for the higher pension. This proposed ex-slave pension payment scale is very similar to the Civil War pension gradation scale for soldiers with disabilities. Soldiers who became disabled as a result of military service received pension payments based on the nature of their partial disability and military rank. Over time, the Civil War pension program came to resemble a system of pensions for elderly veterans just as the ex-slave pension movement’s main focus was to secure pensions to particularly aid the elderly.
The association’s headquarters was in Nashville, Tennessee, where two of its most notable leaders, Isaiah H. Dickerson and Callie D. House, lived. Dickerson, an educator and minister, was the general manager and national promoter of the organization. House, a widow, laundress, mother of five, and former slave, was elected as the assistant secretary of the association in November 1898. She soon became a national promoter of the movement alongside Dickerson.
As the association’s membership grew, government surveillance intensified. However, Dickerson, House, and other association officers were not aware of the federal government’s intense interest in their organization and plans to undermine it and the larger movement.
Association Faces Strong Opposition to Pensions from U.S. Government
Three federal agencies—the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department, and the Department of Justice—worked collectively in the late 1890s and into the early 20th century to investigate individuals and groups in the movement.
The officials who pursued the investigations thought the idea of pensioning ex-slaves was unrealistic because the government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor. Harrison Barrett, the acting assistant attorney general for the Post Office Department, admitted in an 1899 circular that “there has never been the remotest prospect that the bill would become a law.”
In a February 7, 1902, letter to the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the commissioner of pensions blamed the ex-slave pension organizations for arousing false hopes for “reparation for historical wrongs, to be followed by inevitable disappointment, and probably distrust of the dominant race and of the Government.”
Special examiners of the Law Division of the Bureau of Pensions attended slave pension association meetings, took depositions from officers (national and local), and sent letters to officers and members to determine if officers were representing themselves as officials appointed by the United States Government.
The Bureau of Pensions also sent circulars to agents affiliated with various ex-slave pension organizations. Although these circular usually carried the disclaimer, “While any class of citizens has an unquestioned right to associate for the purpose of attempting to secure legislation believed to be advantageous,” these words were often simply a formality. The bureau’s inspectors did not find evidence to incriminate any of the influential MRB&PA officers whom they suspected of fraud.
The Post Office Department took action when it presumed that the U.S. mails were being used to defraud ex-slaves. The Post Office used its extensive antifraud powers against the movement, issuing fraud orders to organizations and officers.
On September 20, 1899, Barrett issued a fraud order against the MRB&PA and its national officers (Dickerson, Rev. D. D. McNairy, Rev. N. Smith, Rev. H. Head, and House), forbidding the delivery of all mail matter and the payment of money orders.
Once the mail was intercepted, it was either returned to senders marked “Fraudulent” or simply withheld from the intended recipients. The fraud order and obstruction of mail proceeded even though the Post Office had no concrete evidence that the association had acted illegally.
In letters to both Barrett and Nashville Postmaster A. W. Wills, Dickerson, House and other officers invoked their first amendment rights (namely their right to assemble and right to petition the government), 14th and 15th amendment rights (citizenship rights and voting rights), and highlighted the dire condition of old ex-slaves.
In both correspondence and depositions, national and state officers of the MRB&PA also repeatedly denied the accusation that the movement was fraudulent or a lottery. They even hired an attorney to represent them and try to get the fraud order revoked. These efforts were futile. The Post Office Department was determined to maintain the fraud order set in motion in 1899 against the association and its founding officers and was continually searching for ways to limit their influence.
The Department of Justice gathered information to probe the activities of the officers, especially House, not to counteract any fraudulent beliefs. The MRB&PA provided the department with a list of local agents in order to show that they were not a sham organization, but the government disregarded this proof.
There were individuals who, under the guise of supporting the movement, took advantage of ex-slaves. They were either affiliated with an ex-slave organization or pretended to be affiliated with the movement to swindle money. To counter any misuse of funds within their organization, the MRB&PA had a grievance committee that would determine if an officer was guilty of squandering funds, and it took necessary action against him or her.
The goal of the investigations by the Bureau of Pensions, Post Office Department, and Justice Department was not to determine whether former slaves had a legitimate grievance or claim, but to stifle the movement.
The pension bills submitted to Congress received little serious attention. The Senate Committee on Pensions examined S. 1176 (a bill essentially similar in language to all of the other bills) and wrote an adverse report. This committee received its information (and thus a tainted view of the movement) from none other than the Post Office Department and the commissioner of pensions. The report described freedpeople in the movement as “ignorant and credulous freedmen,” and the committee concluded that “this measure is not deserving of serious consideration by Congress” and recommended “its indefinite postponement.”
When House learned of the committee’s report, she drafted a letter to the commissioner of pensions refuting its allegations and explaining the objectives of the association. She invoked both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Because one of the main objectives of the association was petitioning Congress for pensions to aid old ex-slaves, House reminded the commissioner that “the Constitution of the United States grants it[s] citizens[s] the priviledge [sic] to petition Congress for a redress of Greviance[s] [sic] therefore I cant see where we have violated any law whatever.”
In 1901 Dickerson was found guilty of “swindling” in city court in Atlanta, Georgia. The press reported that he would have to pay a $1,000 fine or be sentenced to one year on the chain gang. The conviction was overturned later that year by the Georgia State Supreme Court, which reasoned that in order to be convicted of swindling, Dickerson would have had to have claimed that an ex-slave pension bill had passed and become law or that an appropriation had been made to pay pensions, and not simply that he was advocating for the passage of pension legislation.
Then in May 1902 a special examiner of the Bureau of Pensions conducted an inquiry into Dickerson and drafted an affidavit of the investigation but found nothing incriminating. When Dickerson died in 1909, House soon became the leader in the forefront of not only the MRB&PA but of the movement.
After Congress responded so unfavorably to the pension movement, House took the issue to the courts.
In 1915 the association filed a class action lawsuit in federal court for a little over $68 million against the U.S. Treasury. The lawsuit claimed that this sum, collected between 1862 and 1868 as a tax on cotton, was due the appellants because the cotton had been produced by them and their ancestors as a result of their “involuntary servitude.”
The Johnson v. McAdoo cotton tax lawsuit is the first documented African American reparations litigation in the United States on the federal level. Predictably, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied their claim based on governmental immunity, and the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal, sided with the lower court decision.
The Post Office Department was unrelenting as it continued to search for means to limit House’s influence and curtail the movement. After a prolonged investigation, House was arrested and indicted on charges of mail fraud. She was accused of sending misleading circulars through the mail, guaranteeing pensions to association members, and profiting from the movement. She denied ever assuring members that the government would grant pensions or that a law had been passed providing pensions for ex-slaves. There was also no evidence that she profited from the movement.
The Post Office identified activities as mail fraud without definitive evidence, and their decisions to deny use of the mails were nearly impossible to appeal.
After a three-day trial in September 1917, an all-white male jury convicted her of mail fraud charges, and she was sentenced to a year in jail at the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City. She was released from prison in August 1918, having served the majority of her sentence, with the last month commuted.
This movement, against insurmountable odds, pressed for the passage of pension legislation to no avail. But being labeled as fraudulent—especially by determined federal agencies—sealed its fate.
Originally published by Prologue 42:2 (Summer 2010), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.