Friday, May 17, 2019

The Ex-Slave Pension Bill

In 1900 there existed an aging class of people who were ex-slaves.  Freed during the civil war they had now scattered throughout the United States although most were still in south.  Based on the 1900 census there were more than 1,387,000 of them over the age of 40.  Mostly uneducated and poorly trained, as they became older, they relied more on local charities to exist.  Walter Raleigh Vaughan (1841-1915), a white Democrat, former Confederate Captain, and born in Virginia but moved to  Alabama at age 1,  persuaded congressmen to sponsor a proposed bill called  “The Freedman Pension Bill” in congress to give each ex-slave a pension.  The bill providing that ex- slaves should be made pensioners of the United States and that pensions should be granted according to the following scale: negroes 70 years old and upward to receive $500 cash and $15 a month; those 60-70 years old to receive $300 cash and $12 a month; those 50-60 years old to receive $100 cash and $8 a month; those less than 50 years old to receive $4 a month.  Each year between 1890 and 1903 he tried to have it passed.  Judge Vaughan may have sounded like he was looking out for the ex-slave but he was more concerned about the financial hardship to the states where these ex-slaves lived.  By spreading the cost of helping the ex-slaves across the nation it would relieve the local charities from having to provide financial assistance to the slave.  Plus a pension would also ensure the ex-slaves continued to vote democrat.

In addition to the bill he created an organization called “Vaughan’s Ex-Slave Pension Club”.  The club acted as a fraternal order and collected information about ex-slaves so a pension could be secured for them.  Each member paid an initial fee of 25 cents and 10 cents monthly thereafter with the idea the funds would be used to lobby congress for the passing of the ex-slave bill.    He also made the organization a secret order and allowed people to open their own branch of the society.  If any Negro who wished to organize a branch of the organization would come to Chicago for a cost of $25 they could obtain the secret work, grip, password etc. and be given full authority to establish such subordinate orders. 

He also wrote a pamphlet called “Freedmen’s Pension Bill: a Plea for American Freedmen,” about the pension and the Freedman struggle to obtain it.  He sold this for a dollar each and the initial 10,000 copies sold out in a year.  Below is a link to it

Walter Vaughan made out better with the ex-slave pension organization then the ex-slaves did.  He said he had expended $20,000 on pension work and the Commissioner of Pensions in 1899 estimated he collected $100,000 in dues.  Other organizations copied what Vaughan had created.  Some tried to do good for the ex-slaves, but others simply swindled the ex-slave out of his or her dues money. 

The most famous or infamous were Reverend Isaiah H Dickerson and Mrs. Callie House.  They ran the “National Ex-Slave mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association.”  In 1901 Dickerson was found guilty of “Swindling” but the Georgia State Supreme court overturned the conviction, multiple investigations continued with him.  He died in 1909 at age 48, and Mrs. Callie House took over the organization.  Reverend Isaiah H Dickerson was born in 1861 in Georgia to Mills Dickerson and Emmaline Peak. 

Callie Guy was born a slave near Nashville, Tennessee in 1865, her father was Tom Guy.  At the age of 22 she would marry William House and they would have five children; Thomas, Delphia, William, Mattie, and Annie.  She would work as a washerwoman and seamstress until reading the pamphlet “Freedmen’s Pension Bill.”  She would then become involved in seeking financial compensation for slavery by way of a pension.  She would join Reverend Dickerson at the “National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association.”  In part the mutual aid society provided burial and health care for its members and lobbied congress for a pension. She would die in 1928 at age 63.  Callie House has gotten better positive attention in recent years then Reverend Dickerson. Mary Frances Berry wrote a book called “My Face is Black is True” about her.

It is not clear if any of these organizations did anything tangible for the ex-slave except take their money.  In the 1920s these organizations either closed up or were closed by the Federal Government.  Of course they were secret organization and perhaps they are still around serving no purpose since the ex-slaves are dead. 

above This medal was worn by ex-slaves who joined this Association attempting to obtain reparations in the late 19th century. It is a two piece medal with a simple top bar below from which hangs a crescent moon and star on which are printed: "National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty & Pension Ass'n of the U.S.A

above Baltimore Sun 1903 Feb 6

In spite of tens of thousands of ex slaves joining these organizations (perhaps a half million ex-slaves) there is a lack of relics and paper charters and documents to display.

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