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

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

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

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

Synopsis

For decades, historians have primarily analyzed charges of black-on-white rape in the South through accounts of lynching or manifestly unfair trial proceedings, suggesting that white southerners invariably responded with extralegal violence and sham trials when white women accused black men of assault. Lisa Lindquist Dorr challenges this view with a careful study of legal records, newspapers, and clemency files from early-twentieth-century Virginia. White Virginians' inflammatory rhetoric, she argues, did not necessarily predict black men's ultimate punishment.

While trials were often grand public spectacles at which white men acted to protect white women and to police interracial relationships, Dorr points to cracks in white solidarity across class and gender lines. At the same time, trials and pardon proceedings presented African Americans with opportunities to challenge white racial power. Taken together, these cases uncover a world in which the mandates of segregation did not always hold sway, in which whites and blacks interacted in the most intimate of ways, and in which white women and white men saw their interests in conflict.

In Dorr's account, cases of black-on-white rape illuminate the paradoxes at the heart of segregated southern society: the tension between civilization and savagery, the desire for orderly and predictable racial boundaries despite conflicts among whites and relationships across racial boundaries, and the dignity of African Americans in a system dependent on their supposed inferiority. The rhetoric of protecting white women spoke of white supremacy and patriarchy, but its practice revealed the limits of both.

Excerpt

On a cool, spring day in March 1931, two white women hitched a ride on a freight train in Alabama in the hopes of finding work in a neighboring state. When authorities stopped the train some time later, both women, fearing arrest for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting even willing women across state lines for illicit purposes, told police that they had been raped by nine black men who were also scattered along the train. Their accusation caused a furor, and a mob that gathered to lynch the men dispersed only with promises of a speedy trial. Despite little evidence of rape, the men were convicted based on the women’s testimony and sentenced to death. As the case meandered through four separate trials and two supreme court decisions, local whites continued to support the women’s charges, even though one recanted her claim of rape after the second trial. Allegations eventually surfaced that the women were no paragons of virtue. Both had occasionally resorted to prostitution to support themselves and apparently had engaged in sexual relations with unmarried white men in . . .

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