The Ex-Slave Pension Movement:
Some Historical and Genealogical Notes

Walter B. Hill, Jr.
National Archives and Records Administration

This article appeared in the Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 4, 1996 Special Issue on Black Genealogy. Reprinted with permission.

When America moved from a society with slaves to a society based on slavery, human life descended to its lowest depth. Slavery emerged as a strict dehumanization process for Africans and contaminated the humanity of Europeans who migrated to the new country. While the institution operated systemically in many ways, its most dominant characteristic consisted of a gross exploitation of human labor. Slavery studies have proliferated in the last twenty years as scholars have examine among several topics the Atlantic coast littoral, the convergence of nationalities on the west coast of Africa, the emergence of the European slave to the western hemisphere, the early origins of slavery in colonial America, the convergence and clash of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans on the north American mainland, the emergence of a slave culture that help feed a slave economy, an American Revolution that inextricable fastened slavery to American society, the subsequent contradiction of American freedoms and slavery, and the relationship between master and slave. All studies of slavery have dealt with in some fashion, the question of exploitation of human labor and the economic engine for American industrialization and mercantilism that emerged in the mid 19th century into American capitalism. One cannot talk about the emergence and growth of capitalism without reference to slavery - the labor of slaves. Few studies have discussed a missing question and exploration - Upon gaining their freedom, did the slave population deserve compensation for their exploited labor?

This essay will not explore this question. It will examine a reaction to the question in terms of a resolution sought between 1890 and 1920. This resolution makes for an intriguing story and inquiry, and some fascinating genealogical possibilities and investigations. In the last decade there have been any number of calls from African Americans for reparations based on the exploitation on slaves. Historically, groups have petitioned the Federal Government to consider such a case for the generations of loss labor of slaves. Various formulas were entertained to resolve this historical suggestion to compensate African Americans. The reparation question has evoked emotion and tension because many in African American communities felt strongly and compelled to promote the idea through individual or community empowerment. Many African American communities desperately need an infusion of capital, employment, health and housing services, and some African American leaders argued and believed that the Government should offer some form of restitution to African Americans for generation of exploitation. The arguments have been plausible from the perspective of African Americans, however; the Federal Government, for whatever reasons, have never seriously entertained or considered the implementation of such idea.

Ironically, there exist another case and argument contrary to the one posed by African Americans. One of the many elements that made the American Civil War so revolutionary was the refusal of the Federal Government to compensate the slaveowning class. Property in mid 19th Century America received guarded protection, but the momentous forces of the war threatened and dislocated southern property owners, in particular slaveholders. In the early stages of the war, the Federal Government went to unusual lengths to protect slave property. History is filled with untold stories of slaves escaping and leaving plantations seeking the protection of Union forces. These dynamics and the convergence of war and freedom intersected to change initial policies to protect property. However, once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863, freedom became a major focus of the war, and little or no discussion emerged for compensating slaveowners for their slave property.

The Federal Government did make arrangement for the slaveowning class in the District of Columbia. There, Congressional acts of 1862 that allowed for the emancipation of slaves provided direct compensation provisions for slaveowners through the work of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation in the District of Columbia. According to Michael Kurtzs in his piece, AEmancipation in the Federal City,@ the Atransition from a slave-owning social system to a free one was handled in a smooth and effective manner. The commissioners saw to it that as much compensation as possible was distributed. The statistics on the petitions filed under the April 16 and July 12 Acts and the relative lack of critical comment attest to the success of the commission.@ 1 Kurtzs believed that the Districts plan could have been a model for the country, but the shifting dynamic of the war and Lincolns intent to free slaves in rebellious states, changed the thinking of the Congress.

Still, at the conclusion of the war, Congress provided a mechanism for property owners. By an act of March 3, 1871, it established the Southern Claims Commission to compensate property owners for their losses. The act stipulated that claimants had to prove their loyalty before and during the war to the Federal Government before their claim would be examined. 2 The act targeted owners of real and personal property and not slaveholders. While the majority of the claimants were white Unionists, many blacks filed claims in hope of receiving some compensation for their losses.

The idea of compensating ex-slaves was not a novel idea. Several Congressional ideas emerged to support the slave population in freedom, but few if any bore fruit. The most common and well-known adage that escaped the halls of Congress was the infamous Aforty acres and a mule,@ idea that some ARadical Republicans@ discussed. This talked reached the ex- salve community and became a center conversation piece that reached a kind of reality in the minds of many. Despite this kind of discussion, southern land reform for ex-slaves and poor whites failed to take place. Congress did take measures to provide some federal assistance to these destitute populations by creating the Bureau of Abandoned Lands, Refugees, and Freedom. While the Bureau lasted for five years, the work performed and accomplished far exceeded the intent of the law that established the agency. The ex-slave population had little and many had no resources to sustain themselves. The struggle to define and fulfill dreams of freedom was left solely to their creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, and the temporary social net provided by the Bureau. 3

The idea of monetary compensation did gain some currency in the late 19th Century.

William R. Vaughan, a native of Alabama, and white Democrat conceived of the idea that it would be an act of justice by the Government to compensate ex-salve by granting them a pension. Vaughan believed that not only would it be justice to ex-slaves, who had little, but also to the tax-payers of southern states who bore the cost of supporting them and its white population. Between 1890 and 1903, he secured the introduction of nine bills in succession to the Congress, none of which ever became law, and the support of some prominent members of Congress. Vaughan prepared the first bill in 1890, and W. J. Cornell of Nebraska introduced it in Congress June 24, 1890. All of the bills were identical; each providing a pension to ex-slave based on a scale. Ex-slaves 70 years and older were to receive an initial payment of $500 and $15 a month; ex-slaves 60-70 years would receive $300 and $12 a month; ex-slaves 50-60 years would receive $100 and $8 a month; and those ex-slaves less than 50 years old would not receive an initial payment, but a $4 a month pension. 4

Vaughan immediately planned for the ex-slave pension project. He relocated from Council Bluff, Iowa to Chicago, Illinois, and began publishing a small newspaper to promote the idea. After establishing his Chicago based organization, he proceeded to organize and charter several groups around the country to push passage of the bill in Congress. These organizations were characterized as secret orders with passwords, rituals, handshakes, badges and symbols, and were charted as the Vaughans Ex-Slave Pension Club. Circulars went out around the country announcing the idea, the bills in Congress, and the organization. The clubs were responsible for identifying and acquiring information on ex-slaves with the intent to secure pensions for them. African Americans were encouraged to establish charter clubs, authorized by Vaughan, and to promote the idea to ex- slaves. The prominent roles that ministers played in their communities allowed many of them to take the leads in establishing ex-slave pension clubs. Numerous branches were established and people paid 0.25 for certificates verifying their former slave status, and 0.10 monthly dues. Vaughan charged the fees to defray the cost of operating his newspaper, organization, and cost needed to support the bills passage. 5

Vaughan developed a multi-facet campaign to promote the idea. He published in 1890 a small book entitled, AVaughan=s Freedmens Pension Bill, A Plea for American Freedmen.@ He stated in the book that he had the idea since 1870 but failed to proceed with it until 1890. The book contained the opinions of Vaughan, and prominent African Americans regarding the importance of a pension for ex-slaves. He discussed justification for the pension and raised the issue that it would also reduce the tax burden of citizens. Ten thousand copies were sold at $1.00, and several new editions were published. He designed and created thematically posters and circulars and disseminated them to his chartered clubs and public places in African American communities. These printed materials identified bills in the Congress and promoted the ex-slave pension movement as well as explained how ex-salve could sign up for their pension. 6

By 1897, other rival organizations appeared, some genuine and some fraud and Vaughan moved to protect his idea. He relocated his headquarter operation to Nashville, Tennessee for a southern based campaign, delegated his authority as Grand National Director, to one P.J. Hill, and transferred all records to him. He issued a circular denouncing the fraud that was embracing the drive for a pension and warned ex-slaves not to be duped. He cited the names of individuals who were frauds and restated that all valid certificates must be approved by his organization, which was changed to the AEx-Slave National Pension Club Association.@ He warned all affiliates that they would be dropped as chartered members if they failed to report their activities and account for their dues. He instructed his agents to inform ex-slave of the fraud consuming the movement. He continued to work with the Association until 1903 when he disappears. In that year, Senator Mark Hanna reintroduced the bill, but subsequent to this, little remains of his actions and whereabouts. 7

From the very beginning of bill introductions to the Congress, various imposters emerged to defraud ex-slaves throughout the south. With the submission of each bill, renewed activity by fraudulent groups ensued. By the late 1890's, rival organizations and Vaughan=s own association, had corrupted the ex-slave pension movement. Indeed, there is some question as to whether Vaughans motives were altruistic. He reportedly earned over $100,000 from the fees collected. Despite this, there was little question that many of these rival organizations were fraud as proven by the investigation, arrest, and conviction of many throughout the South by the U.S. Government. 8 Once the Government moved to investigate, this history becomes very intriguing and the subsequent results hold some promises for genealogical research. In one sense, granting pension to the ex- slave population was a noble idea, but in another sense, the avarice of people made possible the genealogical potentials for research.

From the late 1890s to the post World War 1 era, the U.S. Government investigated and prosecuted ex-slave pension fraud cases. Several organizations emerged and modeled themselves after Vaughan=s association. The most noted were:

  1. National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association
  2. Ex-Slave Petitioner=s Assembly
  3. Western Division Association
  4. Great National Ex-Slave Union, Congressional, Legislative, and Pension Association of U.S.A.
  5. Ex-Slave Pension Association of Texas
  6. Ex-Slave Pension Association of Kansas

The Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty & Pension Association (hereafter cited MRBP Assn.) was perhaps the most sophisticated group of them all. I. H. Dickerson is reported to have organized the association in 1897 in Nashville, Tennessee. He stated the objective of the group was @to unite all the ex- slaves and their friends in petitioning Congress to pass the Mason Bill, first introduced into the lower House of Congress by W.J. Cornell, of Nebraska, June 24, 1890, as H.B. 1119, by W.R. Vaughans request; and in the Senate February 6, 1896, by Senator Thurston of Nebraska, and also for mutual assistance of all its members in good standing.@ Callie D. House became the secretary of the association, and ultimately took it over when Dickerson died. This MRBP Assn. chartered several groups and sponsored agents throughout the South, and held annual conventions. At the meetings resolutions and petitions were drawn to support the passage of the pension bill. 9

The Government pursued Dickerson and House, eventually convicting him in March of 1901 on obtaining money under false pretense, and sentenced him to Atlanta, GA. to serve 12 months. Callie D. House and others were indicted on November 23, 1914, of using the mail to defraud. Ms. House pleaded guilty to the charges but denied Aany moral turpitude@ and claimed that she believed that the legislation had passed and was rendering a service to blacks. The Court declined her guilty plea and ordered her placed on trial. The trial lasted through 1917. 10

The proliferation of these groups throughout the South and the methods they employed to defraud people motivated the Pension Bureau of the Interior Department to investigate them, turn their evidence over to the Post Office Department, who undertook their own investigations. Typically, people would call meetings to either establish ex-slave pension clubs or identify themselves as agents of national organizations. They falsely represented themselves as officers of the U.S. Government, collected fees and issued certificates. These fees ranged from 0.25 to $1.00 to join, 0.25 for badges, and monthly dues from 0.10 to 0.25. The certificates were required to verify their former status as slaves. In some cases, people mailed the certificates to the Pension Bureau for payment. The Bureau would respond by letter informing them that the certificates have no value, and to report anyone to them posing as officers of the U.S. Government. Despite the warnings of the Federal Government, letters from ex- slaves and descendants continued to arrive in Washington, D.C. seeking confirmation of the bill=s passage, demonstrating suspicion of people promoting the ex-slave pension fund, pleading with the Government to pay pensions, confirming their former slave status, seeking information on how to apply, and requesting information on the pension movement. 11

By the post war era, the movement, for the most part, had come to an end. The conviction and imprisonment of people, and the cessation of ex-slave pension bills curtailed activity. The realization that the Congress had no desire to provide pensions also settled in among the ex-slave generation. What remained was broken dreams and loss money, and a small amount of Federal Records that help tell this story. Despite this, these records contain some interesting voices from the ex-slaves. There are letters and a few petitions that describe who these people were, who their masters were, where they were and when they were born, and their age and family members. They also offer glimpses of their life, the struggles and hardships and why the pension would cushion some of these things. The letters are from all over the south and parts of the Midwest, and they demonstrate the breath interest in the movement and of fraud activity. The letters also reveal the names of people who were interested in becoming agents, but becoming an agent in an honorable way. There are letters and some petitions that ended up in the Congress. Former slaves and descendants of Bullock County, Alabama, sent a petition in 1909 to the 61st Congress, listing their name, age, name of master, State and County, and requesting the passage of the bill for pensions. The newspapers reported the frauds and the frustration are brought many. There may be letters and petitions elsewhere among government records that document this genuine idea but tragic outcome.12

The records in RG 15 Records of the Veterans Administration that relate to the ex-slave pension movement are small and limited (two boxes). There are some records in RG 46 Senate, and RG 233, House that contain petitions and documents relative to the pension movement. Since the Federal Government investigated and prosecuted people, there are some records in the RG 28 Records of the Post Office Department, RG 60 Records of the Justice Department, and RG 21, Records of the District Courts, that will contain information on ex-slaves; however, these records are more than likely to contain the events of the investigations, indictments, and court developments. Despite this, the records are very useful for genealogical searches.

End notes

1. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Henry Wilson of Massachusetts on December 16, 1861, S.No. 108. Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd sess., p.89-90. For the details of the Commission, see Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1862- 1863., M520, in RG217, Records of the United States Accounting Office; M. Kurtz, AEmancipation in the Federal City,@ Civil War History, September, 1978.
2. Sarah Larson, AThe Records of the Southern Claims Commission,@ Prologue: the Quarterly of the National Archives, vol. 19, no 3, summer 1987; Reginald Washington, AThe Southern Claims Commission: A Source for African American Roots,@ Prologue, vol. 27, no. 4, winter 1995.
3. U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. 13, pp. 507-509, The act was approved March 3, 1865. The records of the Bureau are located at the National Archives, RG 105. See Preliminary Inventory Number 174 for Headquarter Records and PI for Field Office records.
4. Walter L. Fleming, AEx-Slave Pension Frauds,@ University Bulletin Louisiana State University, vol. 1, (September 1910), pp. 3-15; U.S. Senate, 56th Congress, 1st session, bill number S.1176, December 11, 1899. This bill was introduced to the Senate by Edmund Pettus, Democrat, Alabama, who served from 1897-1907.
5. Fleming, ibid.
6. Fleming, ibid.
7. W.R. Vaughan, ACaution,@ September 23, 1897. The circular was part of the Courts exhibit in the trial against I.H. Dickerson, see RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, Pension Bureau, Ex-Slave Pension Files, Folder 2
8. Fleming, ibid, p. 6; RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, Ex-Slave Pension Fund, Folders 1-8 contains Justice Department briefs on the trails of Callie House and others.
9. RG 15, Ex-slave Pension Fund, Box 1, Minutes of the 3rd and 5th Annual Conventions, Folders 4 & 5.
10. RG 15, Ex-Slave Pension Fund, Box 1, Folder 3. The case has not been thoroughly researched, and not determination has been made as to the outcome of the trial.
11. The Ex-slave Pension Files contain numerous letters expressing various concerns. RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration.
12. RG 46, Records of the United States Senate, Records of the Committee on Pensions, 1816-1946, 61st Congress, File J76.


Mr. C.S Simmons, Sumner, TX
Mr. T.J. Blackwell, Nerotown, OK
Mr. H.A. Gray, Greenville, MS
Mr. W.E. Bratton, Beaumont, TX
Mr. R.H. Benton, Point Pleasant, MO
Mr. Rush O. Coston, Uniontown, PA
Mrs. Hugh L. Wright, New Edinburg, AR
Ms. Deliath Johnson, Lula, MS
Mrs. Mary Reynolds, Uniontown,PA
Mr. Lawrence Dudley, Marianna, FL
Ms. Rolena Preesmy, Vannadale, AR
Mr. J. Blaine Jenkins, Call, TX
Mr. Tom Edward, Waco, TX
Mr. Ralph Harday, Montgomery, AL
Mr. D. W. Sneed, Ennis, TX
Mr. Cyrus Hawkins, Cedar Grove, LA
Mr. H. B. Powel, Riverton, LA
Mrs. George E. Mc Crary, Center Ridge, AR
Ms. Rachel B. Allen, Trigg, AR
Mr. C. McAdams, Munford, AL
Mr. S.E. Brown, Ranford, FL
Mr. Albert Harrison, Felixville, LA
Mr. Joe Roark, Paris, TX
Mr. A.L. Jackson, Indian Bay, AR
Mr. Armstead Bauman, Flora, MS


© 2000. All rights reserved
AfriGeneas ~ African American & African Ancestored Genealogy