black widows, social justice, pensions, pension bureau, Civil War


Following the Civil War, the United States government invested heavily in the U.S. Pension Bureau: a government agency that distributed monetary aid to wounded veterans. This paper discusses the impact of race and gender with regards to pensions in black communities, as evidenced by the pension files of the 34th Regiment of the South Carolina United States Colored Troops. In particular, it addresses the lack of education and documentation amongst black widows which was largely due to their enslavement, in concert with the inherent racist and sexist prejudice of white Special Examiners hired by the Pension Bureau. This combination of circumstances made it significantly more difficult for those widows to receive pensions, which were invaluable to single mothers with no other means of support. Blacks had significantly greater difficulty in attaining pensions than their black counterparts. This disparity underwrote one of the first post-emancipation means of government assistance available for African Americans. Their general disqualification from this aid through the complications of their enslavement and racism is one lost opportunity in American history to limit the race-based wealth disparity problems that still haunt the black community today.