No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries imprisoned black women faced wrenching forms of gendered racial terror and heinous structures of economic exploitation. Subjugated as convict laborers and forced to serve additional time as domestic workers before they were allowed their freedom, black women faced a pitiless system of violence, terror, and debasement. Drawing upon black feminist criticism and a diverse array of archival materials, Sarah Haley uncovers imprisoned women's brutalization in local, county, and state convict labor systems, while also illuminating the prisoners' acts of resistance and sabotage, challenging ideologies of racial capitalism and patriarchy and offering alternative conceptions of social and political life.

A landmark history of black women's imprisonment in the South, this book recovers stories of the captivity and punishment of black women to demonstrate how the system of incarceration was crucial to organizing the logics of gender and race, and constructing Jim Crow modernity.


Let me tell you girls it ain’t no mercy here
Lord catching this long line is killing me
It’s so many women
Here and so many different kind
Some high yellows but I’m a chocolate Brown.
This long line is killing me.


I begin by directing the court’s attention to the fact that as the
accused in this case, I find myself at an enormous disadvantage.
As a Black woman, I must view my own case in the historical
framework of the fate which has usually been reserved for my
people in America’s halls of justice.


Lula Walker is my name … I have a niece who married a drunk and trifling husband.” It was a loving aunt’s authoritative assertion, the beginning of a thorough defense predicated upon the possibility of reunion. Lula Walker’s niece, Emma Johnson, was convicted of murder in 1901 and sentenced to a life term in Georgia’s Milledgeville State Prison Farm. Walker kept the grief and desperation she must have felt during the eight years of her niece’s imprisonment out of her correspondence with the state prison commission. Instead, she explained that there was a “feeling of hatred for the Negro of many of the Whites” that accompanied the “Freedom of the Negro.” This hatred manifested in the treatment of black women under the law, since “the poor Negro Woman had no judgement of the lawyers interlect or any control of a jury and well you know all Jury’s are not considered Perfect.” Her scathing critique of U.S. jurisprudence centered its role in the rule, justification, and maintenance of white supremacy and its impact on black women; yet she offered a layered analysis of jury misjudgment, citing the case of Vince Sanford, a white man who was acquitted despite ample evidence that he murdered his wife’s lover. If white men enjoyed the presumption of innocence, Walker wanted the prison commissioners . . .

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