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

By Simon, Bryant | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Simon, Bryant, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 * Lisa Lindquist Dorr * Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004 * viii, 327 pp. * $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper

The southern past is shrouded in myths-myths of moonbeams and magnolias, contented laborers and kindly bosses, elegant ladies and good old boys, and Simon Legree and Uncle Tom. And then there is the remarkable and gruesome myth, the rape myth. According to this legend, a united front of white men automatically responded with swift vengeance to all charges of rape made by a white woman, no matter her background, against a black man. Either they hanged the accused from a tree or in a courtroom. But either way, justice was done and white supremacy was preserved.

Southern historians spend much of their time untangling the myths, including the rape myth, encrusted around the region. Over the last twenty years, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Martha Hodes, Diane Sommerville, and others have done much to complicate our understanding of race, gender, class, and sexual violence in the South. Now Lisa Lindquist Dorr, with this imaginative and troubling book, has added her clear voice to this discussion.

Dorr builds her analysis around rape and the law in twentieth-century Virginia. In order to understand this dynamic relationship, she looked at piles of court records (288 of them), newspaper accounts, and clemency petitions. Based on this impressive array of evidence, Dorr challenges the rape myth. She finds that not every African American man accused of sexual assault or attempted assault of a white woman faced a mob or received the maximum sentence allowed by law. What this simple fact exposes, Dorr argues, are the paradoxes and divisions at the heart of white supremacy.

For starters, Dorr lays bare the violence of the legal system itself. White Virginians in the last century regularly patted themselves on the back and touted their own civility because they pursued black men through the courts rather than with mobs. But Dorr correctly points out that the system traded in violence and brutality by all-toofrequently sentencing black men to death based on thin and tainted evidence. But the paradoxes don't stop there.

Virginia court cases revealed the fault lines in the white community as well. Not all white women were as believable as others or apparently as important. Class divided whites more than the ideology of white supremacy would ever acknowledge. …

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