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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Nathan Bedford Forrest Special Observance Day in Tennessee

Today is July 13th.  Under Tenn. Code Ann. 15-2-101, "Each year it is the duty of the governor . . . to proclaim . . . July 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day" . . . . The governor shall invite the people of this state to observe the day[ ] in schools, churches, and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of such date[ ]."  

For now, I think I will "observe the day[] . . .with" what I consider to be an "appropriate ceremon[y] expressi[ng]" my "sentiment befitting the anniversary of such date[]."  

I will observe a moment of silence and remember that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not "just" someone who enslaved other people.  He actively bought and sold them.  He was a slave trader - perhaps the worst kind of slaver. He profited on the separation of mothers from children, and husbands from wives - and from their uncompensated and ill-gotten labors. Just three years before the Confederate States of America began their rebellion he was advertising in Nashville newspapers looking to buy 500 people - who he would then sell at a profit.

During the Civil War, he was a notorious officer of the rebelling Army of the Confederate States of America. While often heralded for his military tactics, locally he viciously conscripted men and boys into his ranks.

In April 1864, in what has been called "one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history." Confederate troops under Forrest's command massacred US Army soldiers who had surrendered, most of them African American soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, at the Battle of Fort Pillow. The report of a US Naval commander who arrived on the scene shortly after described it this way:
All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness ...Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.
As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair.
Finally, following the War, Forrest was named the first Grand Wizard of the KKK - elected to that position in 1867 as racial terror and lynchings reigned across the state and the south.
July 1868 Military Commission re KKK in Tennessee
 Excerpt from
Report of evidence taken before the Military committee in relation to
outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee.
By: Tennessee. General Assembly. Senate. Committee on Military Affairs.  Published: (1868)

History of Observance of Forrest's Birthday.  It is important with the outcry around this year's proclamation to remember that this year's "day of observance" is nothing new.  For about a century, the state has commemorated the birth of Forrest. In fact, the work to rehabilitate Forrest's image began in earnest as the second-version of the KKK was on the rise.

Veterans of Troop A, Forrest's Cavalry from Nashville in Washington, DC at a Confederate Veterans' Reunion, 1917
Library of Congress
Beginning in 1921 (which was also, for context, the year of the racial attack in Tulsa on the black Greenwood business district) the Tennessee government began to honor Forrest's birthday with a state-wide holiday. 

In 1923, the KKK burned a large cross in Nashville as part of a recruitment effort. 

And in 1924 they marched in downtown Franklin.

For some context, in 1925, 15 year old Sam Smith was lynched on Nolensville Road near the Davidson-Williamson County line by a mob of masked men who took him from a hospital bed and shot and hung his body from a tree.

The state commemoration of the Klan's first Grand Wizard's birthday continued. . . .

In 1927, the state of Tennessee erected a monument to Forrest at his birthplace in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. And throughout the 1930s, the celebrations of his birthday continued. . . 


The holiday continued into the 1940s. . . 


Note the banks are starting to forego observing the holiday.
 and 1950s . . .


Following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, in 1957 as Nashville moved to desegregate its schools, protestors held up signs referencing the KKK while school children walked to their first day of school.

In 1961, some resistance began to form to the holiday - but not due to its honoree - rather for the inconvenience it caused.

In 1963, the Nathan Bedford Forrest park was created near the site of the Battle of Johnsonville - a battle famous among many historians because of its significance to the US Colored Troops (African American regiments) during the Civil War.
The_Daily_News_Journal_(Murfreesboro) Wed__Mar_13__1963
And the state holiday commemorating his birthday continued . . . 
In 1969, the state consolidated the state holidays making Nathan Bedford Forrest day, a day of "special observance." 

However, Forrest was not forgotten. In 1973, the Sons of Confederate Veterans unveiled a portrait of Forrest to be hung in the Capitol and five years later - in 1978 - amidst protests - a bust to Forrest was placed in the Capitol. The following year, in February 1979, protestors convened again at the capitol to protest the Forrest bust and it was damaged. Two days later, a cross was burned at the Nashville NAACP headquarters.

In 1980, the KKK held a press conference in front of the Forrest bust as they announced that they were training SWAT teams for a race war.


By 1992, voices began to be raised protesting the continued hero worship of Forrest. The Tennessean ran competing opinion pieces on his birthday that year.


Efforts to End Day of Observance in Forrest's Honor. In 2015, calls to remove the bust from the capitol resumed. Additionally, there were legislative efforts to remove Forrest Day from the list of "special observances" honored by the state. 

This year, 2019, when Governor Lee signed the proclamation for his first time since taking office, there was significant outcry over the proclamation.

This opposition made for strange bedfellows as it drew condemnation from the right and left.
Tweet from Ted Cruz, Republican US Senator from Texas

Tweet from the Tennessee Holler
a progressive online news outlet in Tennessee
I fully support those who would change the state law and end the commemoration of Forrest's birthday. However, it is important to remember that this year's proclamation did not happen in a vacuum - it came about as a long history of the state's formal and public honoring of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and by proxy, his deeds.

UPDATE:  Two days later, Governor Lee announced in a series of tweets his plans to work to change the state law regarding the required proclamation.
This afternoon, I sat down for an interview to clear the air on something that everyone’s been talking about – the Nathan Bedford Forrest Proclamation. While it is my job as governor to enforce the law, I want Tennesseans to know where my heart is on this issue. Our state’s history is rich, complex and in some cases painful. With this in mind, I will be working to change this law. 
He then linked to an interview that he gave in which he said, 
“I want to share my heart about this,” the governor said. “I didn’t like it, and I want to explain why I didn’t like it and why I didn’t want to sign it. There are parts of our history that are painful particularly to African Americans. . . .Nathan Bedford Forrest and his parts of life is part of painful history and why I, we need to look at changing law and I will work with legislators to do that."
Regarding calls to remove the bust of Forrest at the capitol he said, "We need to have a broader conversation about that as well."

Friday, June 21, 2019

Mrs. Callie Guy House - and the story of the Middle Tennessee movement for slavery reparations

This week, the US House of Representatives held a meeting in Washington, DC to explore H.R. 40 to create a commission to develop proposals to address the lingering effects of slavery and consider a “national apology” for the harm it has caused.  There are many other bloggers and historians who have explored the issue of reparations.  I will not attempt to fully discuss that issue here. However, I think it is worth a bit of time to delve into middle Tennessee's role in the reparations movement.  I suspect many Tennesseans, including myself until I began this journey, did not realize the significant role this area played in the call for reparations - led primarily by one woman named Callie House, a widowed mother of five who spent a year in prison for her troubles.

First, however, I wanted to take a brief look back at the timeline of how - right after the Civil War - the federal government addressed the issue of what might be due to those released from slavery and how those efforts were playing out right here in Williamson County. Initially efforts focused on providing land to those recently freed -- thus, the "Forty Acres and a Mule" proposal that became popular; later private efforts (such as those by Callie House) turned to attempts to obtain pensions for formerly enslaved people. 

40 Acres and a Mule
  • January 1865. Special Field Order No. 15, issued by Gen. William T. Sherman 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 formerly enslaved people. Sherman also decided to loan mules to former slaves who settled the land. This was the genesis of "40 acres and a mule."
  • March 3, 1865 - The Freedmen's Bureau was established by Congress to help the formerly enslaved transition to freedom. Section 4 of the Freedmen's Bureau Act placed abandoned land in the hands of the Bureau and authorized the Bureau to rent up to 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to the formerly enslaved or to 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. This appears to have codified the "40 acres" ideal throughout the South.
    • In April 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau took possession of several large tracts of land from former rebel landowners in Williamson County. It is likely they planned to redistribute it under the Section 4 authority of the Freedmen's Bureau authorizing legislation.

    • Two accountings of the land held by the Bureau in Williamson County from this time period showed these large parcels - all rated as "Good."
      • H G W Mayberry Farm 16th District (1,680 acres) [aka Beechwood Hall]
      • W. S. H. Hill Farm 8th District (two parcels - 880  and 195 acres)
      • John H. Hunter Farm 8th District (395 acres)
      • S. [Sidney] Prior Smith Farm, 8th District (946 acres)
      • Wm. C. Pope, 4th District (230 acres)
      • James M. Fitzgerald, 2nd District (282 acres)
      • F. W. Dodson Place, 4th District (350 acres)
  • However, just a short time later on May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson declared an Amnesty Proclamation restoring property rights (except "as to slaves") to the majority of former Confederates. In response, large number of former rebels whose property was held by the Bureau, began to apply for and gain restoration of their former real property rights. This gutted the Bureau's efforts to provide land for the formerly enslaved and essentially rescinded the bargains made between the them and the Bureau. 
  • As a result, on September 12, 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau had to issue Special Field Order No. 15 which adopted formal rules under which real property would be restored to its former rebel owners.  By the end of 1865, thousands of the formerly enslaved were evicted from land that had been earlier distributed to them. 
    • The Bureau did try to protect the tenants by stipulating that land cultivated by refugees or freedmen should be retained until the growing crops were gathered, unless the owner made full compensation for the labor expended and its products.
  • By December 1865,report issued by Gen. Howard the new director of the Freedmen's Bureau (former commander of the federal Army of Tennessee and namesake of Howard University) predicted that by the end of the year, the Bureau would hold no land owned by former rebels: "Under the provisions of this circular, the work of restoration has progressed very rapidly, and it is probable that when the year terminates, little or no property will remain under control of the bureau."
    • Howard's report continued: "The uncertainty of the tenure of the bureau over property, which is the immediate result of [President Johnson's] policy of restoration adopted, has rendered the division and assignment of land to refugees and freedmen impracticable. ... Difficulty has arisen from disappointing the natural and well-founded expectations of freedmen in this subject... Much embarrassment, and, in some instances, actual suffering has resulted from the restoration of property in use as offices, colonies of freedmen, and hospitals -- and much more will result from the curtailment of the revenue of the bureau."
  • On January 1, 1866, hundreds of formerly enslaved people in Williamson County entered into labor contracts under the protection of the Freedmen's Bureau here.
    • By April 1866, the effects of President Johnson's amnesty was clear here in Williamson County.  Nearly all of the lands previously counted as "Abandoned" and under the Bureau's control had now been returned to the hands of the former rebel owners as a result of either Presidential Pardons or the Amnesty provisions:
      • F W Dodson, 4th Civil District, 350 acres valued at $7,000; in possession of previous owner who had "taken the amnesty oath"
      • James M. Fitzgerald, 2nd Civil District, Farm of 282 Acres of Land, valued at $12,000; in possession of previous owner who had "taken the amnesty oath"
      • W. S. H. Hill, 16th Civil District, Farm of two plots of 880 & 195 Acres of land, valued at $27,000; in possession of previous owner who has received the President's Pardon; Hill owned the Roper's Knob property and perhaps some of this land is the subject of this account; he was later a judge in Franklin]
      • John H. Hunter, Hillsboro [Leiper's Fork], 3rd Civil District, 375 acres of Land and a good dwelling, valued at $6,000; in possession of previous owner who had "taken the amnesty oath"
      • William C. Pope, 4th Civil District, Good dwelling and 30 acres of land - "deceased"
      • H. [Henry] G. W. Mayberry, 3rd Civil District, 1,680 acres of land (450 tillable), valued at $22,000; in possession of previous owner - has no pardon, "but more than half of his property is in the chancery court" - Mayberry had served as quartermaster for the Confederates in Williamson County and almost lost his farm following the War
      • Mrs. James A. McNutt, Franklin on Lewisburg Pike, Brick House and 30 acres of land, valued at $3,000; "used as a Freedmens School" - this home was reclaimed by the McNutt family by the fall of 1866 and they were operating their own school out of the home by Sept 1866
      • Sidney Prior Smith (see Horrace Harrison), farm of 500 (947?) acres and a good dwelling; valued at $23,000; in possession of previous owner who had "taken the amnesty oath" and has a Presidential Pardon

  • In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give formerly enslaved people and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states during the six month period from June 1866 until January 1, 1867.
    • However, the law made it very difficult for homesteaders to actually purchase land through the act. Many formerly enslaved people - including those in Williamson County - were already under labor contracts through the end of the year. Others may have already leased land and could not get out of their contract to switch to a homestead plot.
  • This was largely the end of the formal efforts to grant formerly enslaved people land on which to rebuild their lives. 

  • Ex-Slave Pensions

By the late 1870s, federal Reconstruction and much of its protections had come to a crushing end. Jim Crow segregation was on the rise across the country. Over the next decades as the success of the pension program for federal Civil War veterans grew - calls for pensions to support the many now-aging formerly enslaved people in the American south began to gain traction.  Many of these veterans were African American soldiers of the US Colored Troops. The pensions collected by them or their widows and dependents - had the power to be transformative.

In 1890, a Congressman from Nebraska introduced a bill at the urging of his constituent, Walter R. Vaughan of Omaha, a white Democrat and former mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  The bill would have created a tax break to help southern blacks, but it never passed.

By 1891 Vaughan was placing ads in newspapers across the south advertising his idea for creating a pension program for former slaves. He was forming "clubs" to help support his pension bill that would provide a $500 lump sum and up to $15/month to beneficiaries. 

On June 6, 1897 Vaughn held a meeting in Nashville at St. John's AME church to recruit members to his clubs. According to one newspaper account, 40 of these clubs existed in the area with a membership of 900 people.

Nashville American Monday June 7, 1897
On June 6,  Vaughan addressed a large crowd at St. John's AME church to garner support for his pension program.
The_Nashville_Globe_Friday July 5, 1912
In September  of that year, Vaughan's organization held its first National Convention and it was in Nashville. Peter F. Hill of Nashville was appointed as Vaughan's authority in the south for what was then called the "Ex-Slave Club Association of the United States of America" - sometimes called "Vaughan's Clubs." Hill was also at that time the national president of the benefit organization, the United Brothers of Friendship.

Another group, probably encouraged by the efforts of Hill and Vaughan, formed at the same time the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (MRB&PA) in Nashville. One significant difference between this group and Vaughan's clubs was that it was run and operated entirely by African Americans. The association's two leaders were Rev. Isaiah H. Dickerson and Callie D. Guy House. Dickerson was an educator and minister. House was a widow, laundress, and the 35-year-old mother of five young children. 

It is worth noting that during this time period, lynchings and violence against African Americans continued at horrifying rates.  This article appeared in a Richmond, VA newspaper counting all those murdered for the year 1897 - some of the reasons for their killings included perceived infractions such as "talked too much" or "drank soda water."
Richmond Planet, Sept. 22, 1900

In November 1898 the Third Convention of the MRB&PA was held in Nashville at the Gay Street Christian Church. According to the published minutes, the officers of the organization included Rev. McNairy (Nashville), Rev. Smith (Hartsville), Callie House (Murfreesboro), H. Head (Gallatin), and I. H. Dickerson (Nashville). At the meeting, Callie House read Senate Bill No. 4718, "A Bill to Provide Pension for Freedmen and So Forth."

Badge of the MRB&PA
Sold through Cowan's Auction
By January 1899, McNairy and the other officers had created an office in Washington, DC where they were overseeing the organization's membership of 600,000. One of the members acting as a local agent in Williamson County was A. G. Bostick of the Triune area. He was probably Gustin Bostick (b. 1833) who had been enslaved by the Bostick family in Williamson County.

Certificate of membership in the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association.
(Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)
Evening Star (Washington DC)
Sept 21, 1899

As the association's membership grew, government interest and scrutiny likewise increased. On September 1899 a fraud warrant was issued against the MRB&PA Officers. The federal government claimed they were committing mail fraud by taking money from members for promises they could not deliver (i.e. getting a pension for formerly enslaved people). The US Postal Service was no longer allowed to deliver any of the organization's mail or that of its officers - a major blow to the group.

Callie House wrote to Henry Clay Evans, the Pension Commissioner, defending herself and the actions of the organization. Her letter was so eloquent that I wanted to transcribe it in full here:

Nashville, Tennessee, Dec. 13, 1900

Hon. H. Clay Evans, P. C. [Pension Commissioner] Washington, DC
Hon. Sir,
I take the opportunity of writing to you to explain to you the objects and workings of the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty & Pension Association. By chance, I came in possession of the report of the pension committee Jan. 16th, 1900 accompanied by Senate Bill No. 1176 and saw my name in the same & will say there has been false evidence given in to you and the Post Office department against the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty & Pension Association. This association is formed just like any other society to take care of the sick & bury its dead & the only feature in the organization that's not exact to other societies is the petitioning to the government for the passage of some measure for the Relief of the old ex-slaves in their old declining years. The whole & sole objects [page 2] of the MRB&PA is to take care of the sick, bury the dead & petition Congress for the passage of some measure to pension the old ex-slaves for this government owes the ex-slaves an indemnity for the labor they was rob[bed] of after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that declared all men born equal. The negro was worked and taxed as chattel under the Flag that you all claim to all nations to wave over the land of the free and home of the brave. Now since we have been freed and made citizens we can read for ourselves that we ought to have been free nearly 100 years before we was. We, the officers and members of the MRB&PA are working by the laws that the white man north and south made. We are citizens made so by our white friends. The constitution of the United States grants its citizens the privilege to petition Congress for the redress of grievances. Therefore I can't see where we have violated any law whatever. The monthly dues we [count?] in the report are used by the members of the Association for sick & burial purposes as before stated and are [page 3] not used by the General officers as been stated. The joining fee is used for General expenses of the association just like that of Odd Fellows, Knights of Honor and other institutions. The evidence given in the Congress would certainly pass the Ex-Slave pension bill does not reach this institution. We have held out no representations or promises to the Ex-Slaves. Affidavits are being made by the members of this association that understood that the bill was not a law but they was to petition for the passage of it or some other measure similar to it to help them as they are now old and bent up with rheumatism from the exposure they undergone in the dark days of slavery and are not able to perform manual labor. The male members of this association are supporters of the Republican party and I don't think that party ought to prohibit them from asking Congress for something by tying up their mail. They are law-abiding citizens and have not violated no law. I hope you will [page 4] sympathize with these old people and not try to keep them from a little aid. . . . Respectfully . . Callie House, National Secretary, MRB&PA US, 16 Trimble Street, Nashville, Tenn

Pension Legislation, Pension Efforts & Litigation

In 1902, Callie House stepped down from her role with the organization due to continued federal scrutiny. The following year, the last major federal legislation pressing for reparations for formerly enslaved people - proposed by Alabama Congressman Edmund Pettus - failed. The legislative appetite for such a program seemed to be gone. Other avenues for compensation would need to be found.

By 1907, the investigation into the MRB&PA had likewise "petered out". The US Post Master implied the lack of prosecutions against Callie House and the leadership of the MRB&PA was perhaps due to the fact that the investigation had made things "too hot" for the officers to continue.  But in reading through the files available online, it seems clear that the case against them was very flimsy - most "witnesses" were writing to prosecutors asking for information about how to obtain pensions, not to claim fraud, and when they did claim fraud it was because they were told that the MRB&PA was engaged in fraud, not because they initially believed it.

. . . .

Callie House, however, did not lose her desire to help people. In
 1909, when her old friend Isaiah Dickerson died, she took over their organization. According to the Census in 1910, she was the "traveling agent" for a mutual aid association - almost surely the MRB&PA. Throughout the early 1910s the Nashville directory listed her as a "lecturer." She was travelling around the United States speaking, advocating and enlisting new members for her organization.

Topeka Plaindealer
November 12, 1915

Topeka Plaindealer
July 30, 1916
In 1915 Callie House decided to try another tack to gain compensation for formerly enslaved citizens of the US.  She enlisted the aid of Memphis attorney Cornelius Jones to sue the Treasury Department for $68,073,388.99 in cotton taxes traced to slave labor in Texas. It was believed this money was held in a fund by the federal government. Under this new scheme - essentially a class action - each claimant of the Civil War Cotton Revenue Claim paid $1.75 into a pool to fund the litigation.

In 1916 Postmaster General A. S. Burleson once again went after Callie House for mail fraud charges - alleging that the payments to fund the Cotton Revenue litigation amounted to fraud. On May 10, 1916, Nashville's US District Attorney Lee Douglass filed indictments against House and other officers of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association charging that they had obtained money from ex-slaves by fraudulent circulars proclaiming that pensions and reparations were forthcoming. She was arrested in August and according to the Nashville Tennessean newspaper article, she was not able to make the hefty bail and thus bound over to the Davidson County jail. It made me wonder - if they suspected her of defrauding thousands of people, why was she not able to make bail? At that time, she was 54 years old.

Nashville Tennessean
August 4, 1916, page 3

On September 1, 1916, the Civil War Cotton Revenue Claimants held a convention in Canton, Mississippi. 2,300 people attended and a thorough accounting of the funds raised to fund the litigation so far was made. In October 1916, House's son Thomas was also indicted.  It wasn't for another year that Callie's trial was held - in Nashville in October 1917.

Nashville Globe
October 12, 1917
House was convicted of fraud and served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary from November 22, 1917 to August 1, 1918.  She had been sentenced to serve one year and one day, and was sent there because it was one of the few places to send female federal inmates. 
Missouri State Penitentiary

Registry of Callie D. House's incarceration at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
By 1920, Callie had re-united with her adult children at her home on 10th Avenue in Nashville. Callie and her daughter Annie worked as seamstresses out of their home. Her son William worked as a Tailor in a tailor shop. Another daughter Mattie, who was ill, also lived with the family as did a grandson. Callie appears to have left behind her work advocating for compensation for former slaves.

Callie Guy House died from cancer at her home in Nashville, Tennessee on June 6, 1928, at the age of 67. She was buried in the "family lot" at what is today called Greenwood Cemetery but her graveside is unmarked and has not been identified.

Following her death, many of Callie House's followers would later be absorbed into Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association - which was also targeted with charges of mail fraud as a way of controlling the movement.

Callie House's story has not been entirely forgotten.  In 2006, Professor Mary Frances Berry wrote a well-received biography about her entitled, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.  


In 2015 Vanderbilt University's African American and Diaspora Studies Program renamed its research arm the Callie House Research Center for the Study of Black Cultures and Politics.

Callie House's legacy as a powerful, courageous woman can inspire us all - and her story also serves as a reminder that the call for reparations is not a new one.  The demand for compensation began soon after the Civil War and was never adequately addressed.