I’ve spent the last five years studying the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States. There was much I didn’t know. I read of the brutality of industrial slavery, something far different than the “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of slavery from my childhood. I discovered – that when it comes to freeing black people – the Civil War was a splendid failure, that the plight of blacks in America was even uglier after the Emancipation Proclamation. I learned one black man or woman was lynched every week during the one hundred years after the Civil War. I uncovered countless stories of white violence and oppression. After five years, I thought I could no longer be surprised by the moral depravity of white America.
I was wrong.
This past month, I’ve been researching the role of rape in sustaining slavery and racial oppression. It’s a dimension of slavery seldom discussed – today or in the past. In 1861, Southern diarist Mary Chestnut wrote, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.” Chestnut called this reality “the thing we cannot name.”
Unfortunately, one hundred and fifty years later, the rape culture of white America still remains largely unnamed. If white women report high incidents of racial assault and harassment TODAY, what do we imagine was happening during a period of time when white men had absolutely no checks upon their ability to sexually assault and harass women of color? If Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened men of his generation, repeatedly raped his slave, Sally Hemming, at the age of 14, we can safely assume the less enlightened were doing the same or worse. This unbridled ability to meet every sexual whim may better explain the resistance of white men to ending slavery than the often-offered economic incentive. For most of American history, it has been legal for a white man to rape women of color.
While rape has been a common experience for many women, the plight of enslaved women was especially horrifying. In her book – At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – Danielle McGuire chronicles this often-ignored aspect of the black experience. She argues persuasively that ALL enslaved black women could expect to be raped and sexually assaulted from an early age, that their parents and husbands could do nothing to protect them and that in those instances where women resisted that the punishment was swift and harsh. She exposes rape as a common strategy of white men for increasing their wealth – creating children they could eventually sell or monetize. She documents growing evidence that some enslaved mothers would kill newly born daughters, unwilling to bring them into a rape culture they found so horrible.
Of course, we don’t have to speculate about what was happening to enslaved black women. We have the accounts of escaped slaves about their mistreatment and sexual abuse. As Mary Chestnut noted, everyone knew this was happening. Indeed, Frederick Douglas made it one of the centerpieces of his speeches, reminding his northern listeners that his own birth was a product of rape. Douglas made it clear that the immorality of slavery was not some philosophical abstraction, but a state that justified a multitude of immoral acts. The slave that was seen as an economic tool was also seen as an object of sexual gratification.
The 1850 criminal trial of a black girl named Celia graphically illustrates how the rape of women and children of color was understood. Bought by Robert Newsom at the age of 14, Celia was routinely raped by Newsom over the next five years, resulting in the birth of a child. At the age of 19, Celia finally defended herself and killed Newsom. For this act, she was charged with murder. At her trial, though no one disputed the brutality of Newsom’s behavior, she was found guilty and hung by the State of Missouri. The message from this nationally renowned case was clear. Raping an enslaved person was legal.
Unfortunately, what was deeply ingrained in the American white male psyche – the sexual objectification of black women – did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, like lynching, rape was a commonly used weapon to enforce white supremacy and power throughout the one hundred years of Jim Crow. In 1944, Rosa Parks – a decade before refusing to give up her seat on the bus – led an effort to arrest and convict six white men – Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble – for gang raping a black woman by the name of Recy Taylor. Parks and others gathered irrefutable evidence of the crime, including testimony by the rapists. However, two Alabama grand juries refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor, who died in 2017, never saw justice.
Yet when I speak of being surprised by my recent research, it is not the rape of enslaved women or the injustice of Jim Crow courts that shocked me. Though it probably shouldn’t have, what I found most difficult to believe was that the first conviction of a white man for raping a woman of color was not until 1959 – one year before my birth. In what is considered a landmark court case, four white men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – were convicted of raping Betty Jean Owens in the state of Florida.
I name these men intentionally. “The thing that cannot be named” must be. These men represent millions of white men who raped black women and children. Indeed, it is likely that most white American families have rapists in their genealogy. That they did so in a time when this behavior was ignored or excused is irrelevant. That the behavior was taboo to discuss is evidence enough of its immorality.
When white people blithely suggest that black people need to get over the past, we do so because it allows us to ignore the shocking and the horrible. Many black women today have been victims of a culture that defined their rape as a white privilege. Many white men today, whether they realize it or not, were enculturated to see black women as sexual objects. Acknowledging both of these realities is a necessary starting point in racial reconciliation.