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Blacks fared worse in post-Civil War pensions, BYU professor reports

Eligibility was equal but benefits weren't, BYU professor reports

Union Army vet John Pinkey submitted this photo as part of his pension application. Blacks had trouble getting OK'd.
Union Army vet John Pinkey submitted this photo as part of his pension application. Blacks had trouble getting OK'd.
BYU

PROVO — Pensions after the Civil War came from color-blind eligibility laws but still resulted in unequal benefits, a BYU professor explains in an article just published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Economist Sven Wilson, associate professor of public policy at BYU, explained that after the Civil War, the U.S. Pension Bureau offered benefits to wounded Union veterans, regardless of race.

However, black soldiers didn't receive benefits equal to those of their white counterparts because they had a hard time producing the necessary paperwork, so fewer applied.

Those who did apply were less often believed, compared to whites, when they claimed undiagnosable conditions like persistent diarrhea, earaches or back pain, Wilson said.

Despite increasing political support for veterans from 1880 to 1890, the gap continued to widen between applications granted for white soldiers and black soldiers. For example, 44 percent of claims regarding back pain were granted for white soldiers, compared to only 16 percent of black soldiers' claims.

However, easily diagnosable conditions, like varicose veins, saw more equal approval: 69 percent for whites and 60 percent for blacks.

In 1890, Congress passed a law that eliminated the need to prove causal relationship between the war and an injury, requiring only that veterans show a disability. White enrollment increased, but the enrollment rates for blacks "skyrocketed," Wilson said.

"It had an immediate effect of doubling the number of blacks in the pension system," he said. "They no longer had that wartime documentation problem that they faced."

However, because of higher mortality rates, many of the black soldiers didn't live long enough to reap the benefits, he said.

The data came from thousands of hours spent digging through files in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — work done in large part by BYU students — and through a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

For more information see news.byu.edu/archive10-feb-unionarmy.aspx

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com