Sexual Violence Targeting Black Women

Black women students at the State Normal School in South Carolina, 1874.

University of South Carolina Archives

Black women seeking to assert the rights of citizenship and freedom after Emancipation faced dangers based on their race and sex just as they had for generations while enslaved. Black women were killed in the same lynchings and massacres that took the lives of Black men, but they were also more likely to suffer the trauma of sexual violence.

In May 1870, 15 white men raped a Black woman while other members of the mob lynched her husband. Days later in the same North Carolina community, another white mob raped a Black woman and “afterwards stuck their knives in various parts of her body.”1 The Daily Standard, “A Proclamation by His Excellency, the Governor of North Carolina,” June 22, 1870. News of incidents like these spread through the entire African American community, devastating Black women with the terror of their dual vulnerability.

Enslaved Black women had no legal means to resist or protect themselves from sexual assault by white slaveowners. As early as the 1830s, Black abolitionist Maria Stewart called for the law to recognize Black women as full humans with rights to control their bodies and to grant or withhold consent, but reality lagged far behind.2 Crystal N. Feimster, “What If I Am A Woman: Black Women’s Campaigns for Sexual Justice and Citizenship,” in The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 250-51, citing Maria Stewart, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build, October 1831. In Missouri in 1855, a young enslaved Black woman named Celia was convicted of murder and hanged for killing a white man who had enslaved and repeatedly raped her. The court rejected her self-defense claim, concluding that enslaved Black women had no right to resist white slaveowners’ sexual advances.3 Douglas O. Linder, “Celia, A Slave Trial (1855),” Famous Trials (Kansas City: UMKC School of Law, 2011).

White Southerners were determined to maintain the economic exploitation and political dominance they had enjoyed during slavery, and white men refused to relinquish their freedom to violate Black women with impunity. Even before the Civil War’s end, Southern state legislatures implemented laws providing different sexual protections to white women and Black women. The Georgia Code of 1861 specified a mandatory sentencing range for raping a white woman but let courts decide whether and how to punish rapes of Black women.4 4248 Sec. XXXIII, Code of the State of Georgia (1861).

Indifferent and complicit law enforcement officers undermined federal attempts to protect Black women. In October 1866, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent delivered arrest warrants for two white men accused of beating a Black woman named Silvey Soilean and killing her son, but the local Louisiana sheriff refused to arrest them.5 “Miscellaneous Reports and Lists Relating to Murders and Outrages, Mar. 1867 – Nov. 1868,” Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Louisiana Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865 – 1869 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Microfilm Publication), M1027 Roll 34. That summer in Louisiana, Bureau records reveal an even more devastating story:

Capt. N. B. Blanton, Sparta, reports Cuff Canara, freedman, and Dan Docking, white, had a quarrel because Docking had twice committed a rape on the freedman’s wife. Canara started to Agent of Bureau, was tracked by hounds for ten miles and fired on by Dan Docking, Norman Docking, and John Palmer. Shot in left side of back & (illegible) finally reached agent, having killed 3 out of 4 of the dogs. Warrants issued for arrest of parties but they have not been found, and from statement of people does not think they will be arrested, the people appearing to think the freedman had committed the greater crime by killing the dogs, than the man who shot him.6 Ibid.

Scholar Estelle Freedman writes that white people “deepened the association of rape as an act committed by a Black man against a white woman” during Reconstruction and “presumed that Black women either welcomed [forced sexual relations with white men] or had no moral purity to defend.”7 Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 74. The same white men who professed a fanatical concern for white women’s purity and safety held tightly to the social and legal view of Black women as promiscuous, lacking virtue, and without the right to refuse the lust of any white man.

This particular narrative of racial difference shielded white men from shame and consequence when they employed sexual assault as yet another means of terrorizing Black communities during Reconstruction. In 1868, after a white Virginia judge was accused of assaulting a Black woman, he tried the case himself, jailed the woman overnight, and forced her husband to pay court fees.8 “Register of Outrages Committed on Freedmen Jan. – Dec. 1868,” Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865 – 1869 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Microfilm Publication), M1048 Roll 59. In June 1866, also in Virginia, a Black woman named Peggy Rich reported that a white man named James Smith had assaulted her. He attacked Ms. Rich again after he was released on bail and was later acquitted of both charges.9 Ibid.

In September 1866, a Black woman named Rhoda Ann Childs reported to the Freedmen’s Bureau that eight white planters had come to her Georgia home demanding to see her husband. When they learned Mrs. Childs was alone, the men kidnapped, beat, and sexually assaulted her. Mrs. Childs’s affidavit describes that one of the men “ran his pistol into me, and said he had a hell of a mind to pull the trigger,” and several of the men restrained her while one “applied the strap to my private parts until fatigued into stopping, and I was more dead than alive.” After another of the men—a former Confederate soldier—raped Mrs. Childs, the mob robbed her home and beat her daughters.10 “Affidavit of Rhoda Ann Childs, 25 Sept. 1866,” Records of the Subassistant Commissioner for Griffin, Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Record Group 105, vol. 270), 41–42.

In 1871, Harriet Simril testified before a Joint Congressional Committee that three white men had raped her in Columbia, South Carolina, after her husband refused to vote for the white supremacist ticket. In a courageous statement to federal lawmakers, Ms. Simril named her attackers and described their brutality: “spitting in my face and throwing dirt in my eyes . . . and after that they dragged me out into the big road, and they ravished me out there.”11 “Testimony of Witnesses Before the Joint Congressional Committee: Spartanburg, South Carolina,” in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 183-86. The details of the attack were deemed too obscene for inclusion in the committee’s published volumes but the defiant courage Ms. Simril and so many other Black women exhibited in reporting such attacks stands as enduring evidence of the sexualized terror Black women suffered during Reconstruction and their determination to survive.

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