Experts on slavery reparations for Black Americans discussed the legacy of civil rights activist Callie House, who has been called the foremother of the reparations movement, tying her story to the struggle for reparatory justice in the United States today.  A group of Harvard students has worked with the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Center for Public Leadership and with Professor Ron Sullivan at Harvard Law School to posthumously pardon House, who they claim was wrongfully accused of mail fraud and imprisoned, her legacy tarnished. “I express my appreciation to my students, to my panelists, to all of you who are taking up this conversation in a moment in which our country is wrestling with the past as we try to come to grips with the present and face the future,” said Professor Cornell William Brooks, the director of the Trotter Collaborative, in opening the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum last Thursday, which was co-sponsored by CPL and the Institute of Politics.

Dr. Mary Frances Barry on screen at the JFK Jr. Forum

“The movement that [House] started had members all over the country, not just in the South—anywhere there were Black folk. In fact, the federal government said she had at least 300,000 dues-paying members. She couldn’t figure out why the government was hunting her down and trying to stop the movement. … [However] the movement continued after she was put in prison, even after she passed away. I found records of people who still had charters of the ex-slave pension movement. I have received information and materials from people whose relatives were in the ex-slave pension movement. It was a rational program and if we ever get reparations from the federal government, I think those people who signed, their descendants ought to get something. … Callie House ought to be honored for the courage she showed and the sacrifices she made and how she was willing to put her body and soul into this movement and die for it.”

Dr. Mary Frances Barry, author of My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations

A. Kirsten Mullen

“Queen Mother Audley Moore, speaking about the fierce determination of the politically active Blacks in New Orleans of her acquaintance in the 1920s, recalled ‘we were not cowarded down.’ I want to invite each person here to make that your mantra. Callie House and Audley Moore did not shy away from reparations talk or from developing reparations plans for addressing the cumulative economic effects of racism in the United States. Both women understood implicitly that the federal government owed a debt to Black American descendants of U.S. slavery, and that it should be paid directly to the eligible community. In 'From Here to Equality', William Darrity and I argue that any true reparations plan must eliminate the nation’s huge Black-white wealth gap. Black American descendants of U.S. slavery represent about 12% of the nation’s population but possess less than 2% of the nation’s wealth. We view the racial wealth gap as the most robust indicator of the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States.”

A. Kirsten Mullen, co-author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black American's in the Twenty-First Century

Dreisen Heath

“There were over 130 survivors (of the Tulsa Massacre) still alive in the early ‘90s. Today, we have only three living survivors, Mother Lessie Benningfield Randall, Mother Viola Fletcher, and Mr. Hughes Van Ellis. The perpetrators of the massacre are invoking the strategy they’ve used for centuries to circumvent reparations for Black people in the U.S., which is delay and deny until death. You know Tulsa now as this phenomenon that’s been popularized in HBO shows, but there are real human stories beneath that. In the Greenwood district, we’re talking about 40 square blocks, over 11,000 people, a city within a city … not just the wealthiest Black community, one of the wealthiest communities in the country at the time. ... [W]hat could Greenwood have looked like today?”

Dreisen Heath, reparations researcher and advocate

Cornell William Brooks

“My colleague [Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy] Linda Bilmes and I are working on a paper that describes the sophistication of the federal government in identifying victims, calibrating responses to racial and non-racial harm to the tune of millions, billions and beyond. In other words, this notion of reparations is often couched as reparations for Black people being exceptional and aberrational. When we think about reparations in a non-racial context, it is actually regular and routine.”


Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations; Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice

Photos by Mike DeStefano

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