Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans

Synopsis

What was it like to grow up black and female in the segregated South? To answer this question, LaKisha Simmons blends social history and cultural studies, recreating children’s streets and neighborhoods within Jim Crow New Orleans and offering a rare look into black girls’ personal lives. Simmons argues that these children faced the difficult task of adhering to middle-class expectations of purity and respectability even as they encountered the daily realities of Jim Crow violence, which included interracial sexual aggression, street harassment, and presumptions of black girls' impurity.

Simmons makes use of oral histories, the black and white press, social workers' reports, police reports, girls' fiction writing, and photography to tell the stories of individual girls: some from poor, working-class families; some from middle-class, "respectable" families; and some caught in the Jim Crow judicial system. These voices come together to create a group biography of ordinary girls living in an extraordinary time, girls who did not intend to make history but whose stories transform our understanding of both segregation and childhood.

Excerpt

After a long fight to save his life, African American Willie McGee died in the electric chair in Mississippi in 1951, six years after he allegedly raped a white woman in Laurel. In this case, the justice system worked only as a lynch mob. On the occasion of McGee’s death, the black newspaper in New Orleans, the Louisiana Weekly, opined, “There have been many ‘Willie McGees’ who have paid the supreme price, and whom the world has never heard about. Sometimes they get a trial and sometimes they don’t. The dual system of justice only demands the life of a Negro for the crime of rape. How the God of white supremacy is satisfied doesn’t really matter.” McGee’s story hit close to home in New Orleans. The case was argued in circuit court in the city, and the Louisiana Weekly paid close attention to every development.

It may seem strange to begin a book about black girlhood in segregated New Orleans with a story about a man officially lynched by the American justice system 140 miles north of the city. Yet the Louisiana Weekly’s editorial, “What to Do about It!,” offered another critique of southern justice, not only bemoaning McGee’s death but also denouncing the other side of segregation’s “dual system of justice”–black women and girls’ inability to protect their bodies from the attack of white men. “Thousands of Negro women and children have been raped by white men,” reported the Weekly; “seldom is the death penalty exacted.” The author then told the story of a thirteen-year-old black girl raped by a white truck driver in New Orleans in 1949. The truck driver was found guilty only of carnal knowledge of a minor, not of rape, and therefore sentenced to one year in prison. There are many silences in this story. Historians know very little about the black girl who remained nameless in the Louisiana Weekly or countless others like her who experienced the violence of Jim Crow from the other side of white supremacy’s “dual system of justice.” Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans asks, What was it like to grow up black and female in the . . .

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