White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960

By Ferrari, Mary | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2006 | Go to article overview

White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960


Ferrari, Mary, South Carolina Historical Magazine


White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960. By Lisa Lindquist Dorr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 318; $55, cloth; $21.95, paper.)

Lisa Lindquist Dorr's study of dose to three hundred cases of black-on-white rape in Virginia focuses on the role of racial prejudice in southern soriety and, more importantly, on what the cases and the punishments reveal about race, class, and gender hierarchies in the twentieth-century South. Dorr confirmed, as most historians have, that "racial prejudice permeated the legal process at every step" (p. 21). Southerners believed at the time in a stereotypical rape myth that called for all white women who accused black men of rape to be believed and that black men were biologically driven to assault white women. According to the myth, blacks who raped white women were trying to steal the privileges reserved for white men. Dorr points out that, if the myth is followed to the fullest extent, then racial concerns overwhelm class differences and patriarchy among whites. In the long run, though, race, gender, and class all factored into the trials and their aftermath.

In Virginia, for a black man to be accused of raping a white woman was not always fatal. Only 6 percent of those accused were killed through extralegal violence. However, most of the accused were charged and found guilty of some sort of crime, and the threat of mob violence or coercive methods often influenced the interrogation and trial; the trials were public displays that reinforced the southern racial stereotypes and the rape myth. While the juries upheld white superiority with convictions, the variety of sentences given (most of which were not death) was evidence that the jury had some level of reasonable doubt in the person's guilt. Some blacks were found innocent or given light sentences, while those with harsher sentences were later given a pardon or clemency by Virginia's governors. Dorr's analysis of clemency petitions and appeals shows that over time, other issues such as gender norms, connections with the white community, and the class status of both the victim and assailant played a large role in the punishment. Her study concludes that defending white superiority played a significant role in the trials, but that the end result was influenced by other organizing factors of southern society, such as patriarchy and class differences. Later, after the emotion had died down, other information, such as the reputation and attitude of the assailant, his mental ability, and the use of alcohol, would be taken into account. Also, questions about the character, class, and actions of the victim influenced how much of the privileges of whiteness they deserved. The blacks themselves were not completely silent in the legal process. They found ways to resist, ranging from running away to getting civil rights organizations or their own community to help in their defense. …

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