A Virtuous Ruby is the first book in the Migrations of the Heart series and features a heroine who is an activist. Ruby Bledsoe used purposeful political tactics to force the head honcho of the town mill to treat his workers better. However, in Ruby’s contest feedback, it has been put forward several times that my portrayal of a black woman who dared to speak out against a powerful mill owner’s treatment of his workers was better entered in the fantasy or alternative history categories.
In short, these judges believed that Ruby Bledsoe could not have possibly existed. Everyone “knows” that the history narrative we all learned in school is one that puts forward the notion of African Americans as downtrodden—certainly not in a position or mindset of being able to speak up or to be political. Not before the 1960’s anyway.
Well, Ruby Bledsoe was partially based upon incidents in Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s book, Defying Dixie, where Gilmore posits that the stirrings of the Civil Rights movement started in the aftermath of World War One, when Black soldiers returned home and wanted better treatment. Still, even Gilmore overlooks the earlier example of Callie House (pictured on the right).
Contrary to what some contest judges believe, there has long been organized African American organized resistance to power structures, even before World War One. In 1899, in Nashville, Tennessee, the example of Callie House existed. She said, “We are organizing ourselves together as a race of people who feels that they have been wronged.” Elected as an officer of The National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898, House was a widowed washerwoman mother of five children who dared to believe that the labor of slaves was critical to the economic fortunes of the United Slaves and that the formerly enslaved population should be compensated for it. She even spoke in public about her cause and went to jail for a year for her trouble. The esteemed historian Mary Frances Berry writes about House in My Face is Black is True.
A Virtuous Ruby takes place in 1915, a few years after House’s efforts in Tennessee. It made sense to me to have a heroine who was inspired by House’s efforts of having Blacks be compensated fairly for their labor.
Why don’t these contest judges and others know about House’s brave, but ultimately fruitless efforts? Why isn’t the name of Callie House better known and celebrated, even in February? Even back then, the whole idea of reparations was roundly criticized, even by African Americans so early on, she was derided. Marcus Garvey came along later and took up the reparations cause. When Garvey’s UNIA organization declined in prominence, the cause of reparations did as well. So there went any possibility people would know about Callie House. Even with more recent interest in reparations, House’s name never comes up. Still, her example of organizing to make change, at a time when women couldn’t even vote, must be remembered and recognized.
So, I created Ruby Bledsoe, who, like Callie House, took up a fruitless cause and fought for it—because she believed she was right. And like House, Ruby paid a heavy price for her defiance, in time. At least Callie House stood up, and for that, I remain grateful.