Callie House, a pioneering civil rights leader at the turn of the 20th century, founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association- but was later wrongfully accused of mail fraud and imprisoned, her legacy tarnished and minimized. Through Professor Cornell William Brooks’ course “Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies and Campaigns” (MLD-375), a group of Harvard students has partnered with the Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice and the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Institute to posthumously right the wrongs suffered by House.
“Creating Justice in Real Time” is a course designed to allow students to directly address social injustices. Students across Harvard apply to gain on-the-ground experience through a semester-long project, in which student teams are paired with external clients to develop and execute an advocacy campaign. Four of those students—Abby Brafman EdM 2022, Didier Dumerjean MPP/MBA 2024, Victoria Ennis EdM 2022, and Elam Jones MDiv 2019/GSAS PhD 2026—spoke to the Center for Public Leadership about their involvement in the Callie House project, which culminated in a petition to posthumously pardon Callie House submitted to the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney.
From left: Didier Dumerjean, Elam Jones, Abby Brafman, and Victoria Ennis
Q: What are you studying at Harvard and why did you choose to take Professor Brooks' class?
Didier Dumerjean: I'm a current MPP/MBA student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. Prior to Harvard, I spent six years working primarily in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Google. As an undergraduate, I rallied with my peers around pressing social issues on campus. While that foundation was instrumental in my career, I left the corporate world yearning for space to re-ground myself in theory and praxis. Through “Creating Justice in Real Time,” I gave myself an opportunity to refresh those skills before I go back out into the world by joining a community of people thinking critically about socio-political issues and endeavoring to utilize new practices and tools.
Elam Jones: I’m a third-year doctoral student in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard. I study philosophy, religion, and particular conceptions of justice as it relates to war. I took the class because of its emphasis on justice in hopes of connecting that to the reparative model I've been working on for the past few years. Professor Brooks also teaches at the Harvard Divinity School, and I’ve seen some of his small-group conversations, which are amazingly engaging. It was a privilege to see his classroom lectures as well.
Abby Brafman: I graduated last spring from the Education Policy and Analysis (EPA) program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE). Youth outreach motivated me to take Professor Brooks’s class. I was familiar with his social justice work, particularly around community organizing. Before Harvard, I was involved in community organizing with student survivors of gun violence. I wanted to experience a course outside the GSE that studied community organizing.
Victoria Ennis: I was also in the EPA program at the GSE last year. I’m now working at the Massachusetts State House as an education policy research analyst. Like Abby, I had heard about Professor Brooks’s advocacy expertise. I didn’t have a background in the field, so this course was a good introduction.
Q: How did you come together as a group?
Abby Brafman: Our very first class assignment was to answer a core question: what is your vision of justice, and how can you see yourself achieving it? We submitted individual responses and then shared them with the class. That exercise enabled us to compare interests and strengths and form complementary teams. Another interesting aspect of the assignment was because it's client-facing, you could choose a project because of the work it entails, but also based on your interest in each project’s client organization.
Q: What drew you to Callie House and her case? How would you describe her relevance in today's political climate?
Victoria Ennis: I was drawn to this project because of the story behind it. While the first tasks for other groups in our class involved taking calls and speaking to stakeholders, our team was assigned a book on Callie House: My Face is Black is True by Mary Frances Barry. Reading about Callie brought the work to life for me.
We’re currently seeing progress around the United States toward reparations for Black citizens. For example, the state of California recently established a first-of-its-kind reparations task force to examine the possibilities of monetary compensation for Black Californians. And the conversation extends beyond the United States. I’m from Canada, so I’m viewing it from the international perspective as well.
Didier Dumerjean: Before we even stepped into the classroom, Professor Brooks and his colleagues were determined to launch the Callie House campaign. It’s such a critical area of opportunity. Very few people engage with Callie House’s history today; she is little known in comparison to more prominent civil rights activists. This project was also an opportunity to campaign for the larger issue of economic justice, which is important to me as a Haitian. I was able to relate the fight for reparations in America to the conversations we are having back home in Haiti: what it would mean for countries like France to pay us back what we are owed.
Q: You traveled together to Nashville, Tennessee. What was the trip’s purpose and what came out of it?
Abby Brafman: As we dove into Callie's history, we learned that she was from Nashville, and that was where the bulk of her organizing and advocacy work occurred. We realized how important it was for us to go to Nashville to understand the local politics and potential local engagement with Callie’s history and the injustices she faced. I leveraged existing relationships to connect us with Vanderbilt’s Callie House Research Center for the Study of Global Black Cultures and Politics. From there, we were able to meet with the Nashville Mayor's office and the Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Q: Tell me about your collaboration with key external partners, both at Harvard and beyond.
Victoria Ennis: Our original point of contact was Ron Sullivan, Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School (HLS) and director of the HLS Criminal Justice Institute. When Professor Brooks connected us, Professor Sullivan had already drafted the posthumous pardon for Callie House. We discussed the project and decided on a release date for the petition. From there, Professor Sullivan continued to manage the legal aspects of the work, while our group managed outreach and advocacy, particularly through social media campaigning.
Abby Brafman: We also worked with the National Congress of Black Women (NCBW) and the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). Lynn Dymally, chair of the NCBW board of directors, traveled with us to Nashville. We visited Tennessee State University (TSU), and the TSU NACWC chapter was holding a celebratory meeting that we were able to attend. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch with Dymally and Erica Swaringen-Blankumsee of the NACWC. Once the semester ended, we passed on some of the campaign work to them and Professor Brooks’ Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, but they still consult us for research and support. For instance, they recently reached out about setting up an online petition to mobilize the posthumous pardon petition that has been submitted to the U.S. Pardon Attorney.
Q: What successes have you had and what challenges have you faced?
Elam Jones: A challenge we had was finding time to meet with politicians and successfully establishing those relationships. We experienced political runaround and the practical obstacles to getting things done in our democratic system. But the success of centering this project around Callie House—her story and her personhood—has been particularly amazing. As Professor Brooks and his partners’ reparations advocacy expands, the focus will grow beyond Callie, but her story is a great beginning. If this work is representative of a movement toward reparative action, I appreciate that we can start by campaigning for the reparative justice that Callie House herself deserves.
Q: Is this an experience that you'll be able to draw from in your career moving forward? How will this course help inform your future work?
Didier Dumerjean: I see myself occupying a role at the intersection of private, public, and nonprofit spaces. A lot of the theories and the frameworks that we learned in Professor Brooks’ classroom will be relevant in my career. I’m thinking continually about how I can practice those new skills, especially while I’m in a position of less consequence as a student. If I fail here at school, I get back up and keep learning. I’m building my advocacy muscle now, so when I graduate and resume my career, I’m as effective as I can be.
Abby Brafman: I felt empowered by being able to rely on the connections I had built in Nashville and throughout the South. It was inspiring to see people willing to engage with topics that might not be politically digestible in their community. That hope is something I’ll take forward in my youth outreach work. There are always avenues for engagement with new ways of thought, and it was encouraging to see people come together in that way.
Victoria Ennis: Throughout “Creating Justice in Real Time” and the Callie House campaign, I was building my organizing skills from scratch. It’s an experience I cherish. I’d love to stay involved in advocacy and community organizing work, even if it's not the primary focus of my career. Knowing that I can make a difference and seeing this team’s hard work come to fruition is a great feeling.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Banner photograph by Angel Cox; student photos courtesy of Didier Dumerjean, Elam Jones, Abby Brafman, and Victoria Ennis