Women's History Month: Four unsung black women you should know

Callie House, born Callie Guy in slaveholding Rutherford County, Tennessee in 1861, is still relatively unknown, despite the book about her life My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry. But House, a laundress operating out of Nashville in the 1890s, is an important figure in the reparations movement.

In 1894, House, along with Isaiah Dickerson, who had worked with white political activist William Vaughn around reparations in Omaha, Nebraska, organized the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association. Open to all, the Ex-Slave Pension Association, working nationally and locally, filled the void of the Freedmen’s Bureau, providing burial services as well as care for the sick and disabled to its membership in addition to advocating for legislation for ex-slave pensions.

Because of her success, House became a target. In 1899, the U.S. Post Office, emboldened by the Comstock Act of 1873, issued a fraud order against House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association. Continued federal intimidation forced House to step down as assistant secretary of the Ex-Slave Pension Association in 1902 but did not stop her from organizing more local chapters throughout the South. The wind left her sail, however, when Alabama Congressman Edmund Petus’s reparations legislation failed in 1903.

Pressing on, however, House worked with attorney Cornelius Jones and sued the Treasury Department for just over $68 million in cotton taxes tied to slave labor in Texas, but the case they filed in 1915 was ultimately dismissed. In 1916, House and other Ex-Slave Pension Association officers were indicted for allegedly using the postal service to defraud ex-slaves by promising that pensions and reparations were forthcoming. Convicted by an all-white, all-male jury, House was sentenced to a year and one day which she served in a Missouri penitentiary from November 1917 to August 1918, obtaining an early release for good behavior. Returning to Nashville as a laundress, House died ten years later, but her pioneering and early contributions to the reparations movement should not be forgotten.

Born the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper in 1926, Johnnie Tillmon never let lack stop her. Leaving her first husband in Arkansas for California, with her children in tow, Tillmon, who did not have a high school education, found herself on welfare where she learned first-hand of indignities — such as welfare inspectors rummaging through refrigerators and showing up at midnight to catch male company — that women suffered. Through anonymous letters, Tillmon organized more than 300 of her Watts housing project neighbors in protest in 1963, leading to the formation of the Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous shortly thereafter, which later inspired the creation of the National Welfare Rights Organization—an organization that one-time boasted over 25,000 members, mostly black women. Tillmon Blackston served as Executive Director starting in 1972 until the organization’s demise in 1974.

Tillmon injected the particular rights and concerns of poor black women into the national feminist and civil rights dialogue. In the pivotal essay “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” published in Ms. magazine in 1972, Tillmon argued that because 99 percent of families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children were headed by women, welfare was indeed a women’s issue. In addition, she brought attention to issues of birth control and the sterilization of poor black women, as well as the economic exploitation of poorly educated women. She even called then-California Governor Ronald Reagan out for referring to welfare recipients as “lazy parasites.”

In a time when it was posh to bash the so-called black welfare queen, Tillmon, who passed away in 1995 at age 69, pushed back, dedicating her life in various capacities to bringing much-needed awareness to the struggles of poor black women.

Tillmon’s contributions, as well as those of Elizabeth Freeman, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Callie House, may be unsung today — but there is no denying that each of these women played more than their part in uplifting their race and their gender, as well as in elevating the moral standard by which all human beings cooperating in a humane society should be measured.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha