In 1855, a 19-year-old enslaved black woman named Celia killed the white man who owned her and was trying to rape her. Missouri law allowed a woman to use force when in “imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse,” but the judge ruled an enslaved woman had no right to refuse her “master.” Celia was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and hanged on December 21, 1855.
The legal and social double standard that allowed white men to commit sexual violence against black women with impunity, while the most baseless fear of sexual contact between a black man and white woman resulted in deadly violence, continued after emancipation. Nearly one in four black people lynched from 1877 to 1945 were accused of improper contact with a white woman.
Later, capital punishment for rape also was reserved for black defendants with white victims. In Virginia, all 58 people executed for rape between 1908 and 1963 were black men, although 1000 white men were convicted of rape in that period. In 1957, a Mississippi jury acquitted the white men who confessed to raping 16-year-old Annette Butler because they believed death was too harsh for raping a black girl.
For generations of black women, racial terror included the constant threat of sexual assault. Black women’s resistance to racialized sexual exploitation helped birth the activism that fueled the civil rights movement. A decade before the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks led a NAACP campaign to protest an all-white jury’s refusal to indict six white men who raped Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1945.