|Memphis Massacre (Riot) Survivors (May 1-3, 1866)
“They said they wanted some woman to sleep with. I said we were not that sort of women, and they must go. They said ‘that didn’t make a damned bit of difference.’”
After the Civil War, tensions rose between white Southerners and growing communities of freed people and Black Union soldiers. On May 1st 1866, a white mob attacked the Black community in South Memphis. The attackers, including a number of police officers, destroyed property, schools, homes, and churches. They robbed, beat, assaulted, and murdered Black men, women, and children. Five of the survivors, Frances Thompson, Lucy Smith, Lucy Tibbs, Harriet Armour, and Rebecca Ann Bloom, testified about their experiences. They became some of the first women to recount their sexual assaults before a Congressional Committee. Though none of the attackers faced any consequences, the women’s brave testimony challenged notions that Black women were incapable of being raped, drew national outrage to the violence against freed people, and inspired legal change on State and National levels.
Still curious? Read: Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South by Hannah Rosen
|Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897)
“My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.”
Born into slavery in 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs endured years of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of her enslaver. Jacobs finally decided to escape, in part to protect her two children. She went into hiding, a long, painful experience that included seven years living in a nine by seven foot attic. She eventually escaped North where she met abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. In 1853, she wrote her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs chose to detail the sexual abuse she endured, bringing to light a horror many knew existed but few talked about. In openly discussing sexual violence, motherhood, and sexuality, she gave a voice to the experiences and cruelty endured by enslaved women.
Still curious? Read: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
|State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave (1855)
“[Celia’s enslaver] had told her he was coming down to her cabin that night. She told him not to come, that if he came she would hurt him. And then got a stick and put it in the corner.”
In 1855, Celia, a nineteen year old enslaved woman, killed her enslaver when he entered her cabin to assault her. Celia had been abused by him since he had purchased her at the age of 14 and, on the night of his death, she was pregnant with his third child. She had warned him she would defend herself if he tried again to rape her again and even pleaded with his two white daughters for help. Celia was tried for murder in the landmark case Missouri vs. Celia. Her lawyers argued she acted in self defense. However, although rape was illegal, the court decided this protection did not extend to enslaved women and the jury found her guilty of murder.Though the court decision further denied Black women equal treatment and protection, Celia’s actions forced the public to consider the humanity of enslaved people and the sexual violence so many survived.
Still curious? Read: Possible book Celia: A Slave by Melton A Mclaurin
|Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”
Sojourner Truth was a charismatic speaker, abolitionist, and suffragist. Truth escaped slavery in her late twenties and later spoke on her life and the physical and possible sexual violence she suffered. She fought simultaneously for both abolition and women’s rights and refused to prioritize one over the other. She challenged abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who felt women’s suffrage should wait. Similarly, she opposed the ideas of some suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, that Black men should not get the right to vote before white women did. Her famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”, which she gave at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, emphasized how her life was shaped by being both Black and a woman. Over a century before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, Truth was using that same framework to tell her own story and to advocate for equality for women and enslaved people.
Still curious? Read: Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth
|Ida B Wells (1862-1931)
“Virtue knows no color line, and the chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and texture of hair can command no honest respect.”
Journalist, suffragist, and activist, Ida B. Wells was a crucial voice in advancing anti-rape activism. Wells lead an international anti-lynching campaign that rejected the justification that lynching was about defending white women. Instead, she pointed out many lynchings weren’t even accompanied by the accusation of rape and were instead a way to terrorize and silence the Black community. Wells’ also highlighted the hypocrisy that the same sexual violence against Black women at the hands of white men went ignored and unpunished. She called on other suffragists to acknowledge the horrors of lynching and the role white women play in it. Her work inspired a new look at how power motivates sexual violence and helped other Black women continue to fight for their rights.
Still curious? Read: Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells
The Red Record by Ida B. Wells
|Recy Taylor (1919-2017)
“The peoples there, it seemed like they wasn’t concerned about what happened to me. They didn’t try to do nothing about it. I just get upset because I do my best to be nice to people because I don’t want people to mistreat me and do me any kind of way. And I have to live with it, ’cause I had to live with a lot with going through with this.”
In the fall of 1944, in Abbeville, Alabama, Recy Taylor was abducted on her way home from church and assaulted by six white men. Rather than being scared into silence, Taylor defied their threats, identified her attackers, and testified against them. Hearing her story and the biased way it was reported, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the case and assist Taylor. Two separate grand juries, both made up of solely white men, failed to hold the attackers accountable. It took until 2011 for the State of Alabama to finally apologize to Taylor for her treatment. Despite this injustice, Recy Taylor’s bravery inspired both civil rights and women’s rights leaders and drew attention to the sexual violence faced by Black women.
Still curious? Read: At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire
|Betty Jean Owens (1940- Present)
On their way home from a dance, Betty Jean Owens and three other Florida A&M students were stopped by four armed white men. After making the two men Owen’s was with drive away, the men forced Owen’s and her friend Edna Richardson toward the woods. Richardson managed to escape and seek help, but Owens was assaulted by the four men. The men were later caught after a brief car chase with Owens still with them, yet they were unconcerned and joked all the way to the police station. Owens’ attack sparked outrage and protests from the community, especially from fellow university students. Owens courageously testified in court against her attackers where she endured insensitive questions that tried to paint her as promiscuous. In a surprising verdict, the jury found the men guilty and they were convicted to life in prison. This was the first time white men were given a sentence of life in prison for the rape of a Black woman. Owens’ unwillingness to stay silent set a new precedent in obtaining justice for Black survivors.
Still curious? Read: “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped”: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle by Danielle L. McGuire
|Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would also be free.”
Though most known for her leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks spent years investigating criminal justice cases, especially sexual assault cases. Parks herself had survived an attempted assault by her white neighbor when she was 18. She then joined the NAACP, looking into both accusations against Black men and attacks on Black people by white men. In 1944, she investigated the case of Recy Taylor and started the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor to demand justice for her. Parks’ activism went far beyond refusing to give up her seat on the bus. She spent her life pushing for racial and gender equality and was a pioneer in demanding justice for sexual violence against the Black community.
Still curious? Read: Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks
|Angela Davis (1994-Present)
“If we do not comprehend the nature of sexual violence as it is mediated by racial, class, and governmental violence and power, we cannot hope to develop strategies that will allow us eventually to purge our society of oppressive misogynist violence.”
Prominent activist, philosopher, and professor, Angela Davis is an outspoken voice in movements from civil rights to women’s rights to economic justice. She’s been involved with groups such as the Black Panthers and the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-Black branch of the Communist Party. Davis speaks out about intersectionality and explores how racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia are interrelated. In books such as Women, Race & Class, Davis addresses how structural powers create, shape, and perpetuate sexual violence. Her work is important for understanding how sexual violence affects different communities and for recognizing how race and class shape the way it is discussed, criminalized, and addressed.
Still curious? Read: Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis
Women, Culture and Politics by Angela Davis
|Joan Little (1953-Present)
“My life is not in the hands of the court. My life is in the hands of the people.”
On the morning of August 27, 1974, the body of a Beaufort County Jail guard was found in the cell of 20 year old Joan Little. He had been stabbed 11 times with the ice pick that was now in his left hand. Little, who had been in jail for breaking and entering, was gone and remained a fugitive until she turned herself in a little over a week later. Little revealed that she had acted in self defense when the guard had entered her cell armed with the ice pick and attempted to rape her. Over the course of her trial, Little’s case got national attention and received support from the Black Panther Party, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Angela Davis, and Rosa Parks, among others. If convicted, Little would have gotten the death penalty. However, Little was acquitted, making her the first woman to have successfully used the argument of self-defense against a sexual assault as a defense for murder. Little’s case opened the door for other survivors, especially Black women, to get justice rather than jail time for defending themselves. Her supporters used the trial to further promote issues such as prisoners’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights.
Still curious? Read: “Joan Little: The Dialectics of Rape” by Angela Davis
|Anita Hill (1956-Present)
“We need to turn the question around to look at the harasser, not the target. We need to be sure that we can go out and look anyone who is a victim of harassment in the eye and say, ‘You do not have to remain silent anymore.”
In 1991, lawyer and professor Anita Hill received national attention when she was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to recount allegations of sexual harassment against the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. For three days in a televised testimony, Hill detailed the embarrassing and difficult memories of her time working for Thomas. She discussed his unwanted and persistent advances and disturbing comments before an all-white, all-male panel. The Committee members questioned her story, implied she was delusional, accused her of seeking attention, and suggested she was merely bitter about being scorned by Thomas. Yet, throughout, Hill was composed and unwavering. In the end, Thomas was narrowly appointed. However, Hill’s testimony inspired change. The following year was known as the “Year of the Woman” because so many women ran for office, doubling their numbers in Congress. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed, making it easier for those experiencing workplace harassment to take legal action. As other women felt empowered to share their stories, work place sexual harassment gained attention as a serious issue. Finally, the polarizing trial highlighted the difficult position Black women are often placed in of being asked to choose between their race and their gender.
Still curious? Read: Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill