Recy Taylor

The following essay by Gabriella Ruskay-Kidd was one of the two winners of the 2017 McLeod Prize. The prize recognizes original research papers written by first-year students in the College of Arts & Sciences that explore some aspect of race, gender and/or identity.

The rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old African American woman, in Alabama in 1944 by seven white men and the trial that followed can shed light on the real shortcomings and inequities inherent in both societal race relations and the legal system.

 

   On September 3rd, 1944 in Abbeville Alabama, Recy Taylor, a 24-year old sharecropper, left services at Rock Hill Holiness Church, accompanied by her friend Fannie Daniel, and Daniel’s teenage son, West. On her way home, a green Chevrolet rolled by, and seven white men emerged from the vehicle with knives and guns in hand.1 In an interview with Recy Taylor, she explained that they said “you’re the one that cut a white boy in Clopton. And the police got us out looking for you. You get in the car and we will take you uptown to the police station.”2 They shoved Taylor in the backseat of the car and blindfolded her. The men drove into a deserted grove of pecan trees and commanded that Taylor undress. She was ordered to lie down while US Army Private, Herbert Lovett, told her “to act just like you do with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.”3 Six of them raped her and drove her back to the road she had previously been walking on, threatening her with death if she told anyone what happened that night.4 Fannie Daniel reported the kidnapping to the police and identified the car as that of Hugo Wilson. Wilson named Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, and Robert Gamble as the six men who raped Taylor. Wilson claimed that they did not use force and in fact paid Taylor to engage in intercourse, a plausible defense because secret black prostitution was not uncommon in the Jim Crow era.5 When the Henry County Grand Jury heard Recy Taylor’s case on October 3rd and 4th, 1944, the only witnesses that were present with the all-white and all-male jury were Taylor’s loved ones, who were unable to provide any information about the men who had assaulted her.6 Wilson was fined $250 the day following the hearing and the police didn’t attempt to track down any of the men Wilson named.7 By conducting what seemed to have faint resemblance to a fair trial, the white legal community could dismiss accusations of discrimination. A month after the grand jury met, Taylor and her family returned to their “normal” lives, complete with death threats and excommunication. The night after the attack, Taylor’s home was firebombed by white vigilantes setting the porch on fire, forcing Taylor and her husband to relocate.8

 

     This level of racism and violence against black women was omnipresent throughout the South. Alabama, specifically Eufaula, 29 miles north of Abbeville, was the scene of huge racial tension and African Americans were leaving nightly as a response to the rampant racism.9 In a 1945 interview with a news reporter, Mrs. Fannie Oliver described the trial of her nephew Peter Paul who was sentenced to an electric chair by an all-white jury. In Eufaula, there was a 9 p.m. curfew for all African American residents, night workers were afraid to report to their jobs, and “an organized and armed mob [was] ready to terrorize Negroes at the drop of a hat.”10 Because of the racist sentiment throughout Alabama, Recy Taylor was shunned instead of given sympathy by most of the white community. In an article in the Chicago Defender, Earl Conrad shares the report of E.D. Nixon, a union member who led the Alabama Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that “cases like this, or cases almost as serious as this are so frequent down here that we almost take them as a matter of course…I’ve a dossier of 50 cases of rotten violence against Negroes in Alabama in the past couple years.”11 Because of a necessity among the black community to not report the crimes for reasons of stigmatization or preventing a bad reputation, along with the lack of attention given to the plight of black women by the white community, many cases of white men raping black women were swept under the rug.12 Even still, throughout the 1940’s claims of sexual violence directed at black women were reported to the NAACP chapters; stories were told of white men luring black women and girls by promising steady jobs and wages and sexually humiliating them at bus stops, grocery stores, and E.G. Jackson, editor of the Alabama Tribune, explained that it was a fairly common practice for white taxicab drivers to rape black female passengers before taking them to their destinations.13 As Conrad effectively explains, “there is a base and pattern for the white supremacists’ casual regard for the virtue of Negro womanhood.”14

     Though some members of the white community were sympathetic to the injustice against Recy Taylor and understood the gravity of what her case represented, most were unable to recognize the racism behind the failure of the jury to indict the rapists and treatment of Taylor before and afterwards. In an interview with Earl Conrad, William N. McQueen, the attorney general of Alabama stated that “we have no Negro problem.” He also tried to argue that all cases were proceeded “according to Alabama law and apart from outside influences.” McQueen also refused to attend the meeting held in Montgomery on behalf of equal justice for Recy Taylor.15 McQueen’s insensitivity and ignorance was not unusual among white people in 1944, especially in the south where acts of blatant racism were widespread.

      The refusal of the court to indict the white men took nationwide significance and spurred action in the African American community, from men and women alike. The Alabama section of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare prepared to send a delegation to Governor Sparks to demand that the six known men be brought to trial and punished.16 The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor was a permanent committee developed to call attention to the Taylor case.  Headed by Rosa Parks, the Committee’s immediate aim was to accumulate 100,000 signatures to petitions urging Governor Sparks to secure the indictment of the rapists. Rosa Parks understood that sexual violence sat at the core of white supremacy. E.D. Nixon, Rufus A. Lewis, and E.G. Jackson all joined Parks to help form the Committee.17 At the New York conference that created the national program, seventy-five organizations, including thirty-seven trade union groups, were present.18 The turnout suggested “that this case will be come as famous as the Scottsboro case,” with representatives from religious bodies as well as the CIO, AFL, and American Labor Party.19 Assemblyman, Hulan Jack, secretary-treasurer of the Committee described the inaction of the court as characteristic of a fascist government and hoped the group would be able to fight against “such barbarism.” The conference managed to raise $300 dollars on the spot in order to further their fight against Alabama’s legal system, and resolutions of protest were delivered to Governor Sparks, Attorney General Biddle, the war department, and the Alabama senators.20
      
      Recy Taylor groups were formed in nearly every state; sponsors of the national committee were represented in 41 states, Washington D.C., and Columbia.21  In Alabama, the Southern Negro Youth Conference, an organization dedicated to fighting racial injustice, was led by many African American women committed to providing economic and social opportunities for women. Esther Cooper led the Birmingham chapter of the SNYC and visited Recy Taylor in July 1945 to show her support.22 Though Governor Sparks hoped the case would maintain a low-profile, Activists had no intention of keeping the decision to not indict the rapists a secret; the Committee for Equal Justice spread the news nationwide and during the 1940s, stories of sexual violence directed at black women appeared in letters to the Justice Department and on the front pages of leading black newspapers.23 Through speaking out about their rape, black women found a way to reclaim some of the dignity and humanity lost in the incident and aftermath, as well as a method of redirecting the shame they were made to feel as a victim onto the perpetrator. These actions served as a platform for many of the strategies and alliances that were used to extend the rights of black women in the Civil Rights Movement. 
      
      Action was not only taken domestically; thirty-three soldiers “somewhere in Belgium” sent a letter to Governor Sparks of Alabama urging the indictment of the rapists. Some of these men included, J Halloran, M. Hanson, Vernon D. Cobbs, Clyde Wright, Lee Davidman, and Ray E. Emory.24 In a similar fashion, the Interracial National Maritime Union Women’s Auxiliary, sent a telegram to Governor Sparks to put pressure on Alabama officials. There were 60 signatures of wives and relatives of merchant seaman who insisted that the men be indicted and prosecuted.25 In Italy, 21 American officers publically committed to the campaign for justice for Recy Taylor. The men sent a letter to the Committee with $100 included in order to support Taylor’s cause.26 Governor Sparks was deeply concerned with Taylor’s case affecting America’s wartime effort and worried about the negative publicity that the rape would have on Alabama.27 Black soldiers were told they were fighting for freedom, democracy, and equality, and felt especially alienated by the hypocrisy that showed itself in the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Cries were especially loud from black soldiers because they felt the importance of fighting for the same causes they fought for overseas with anti-racist rhetoric.
      Some members of the white community were sympathetic to the injustice against Recy Taylor, such as the General Executive Board of the United Office and Professional Workers of America, CIO, which actively engaged in activities to oppose racism and focused on the equal rights for African Americans in the workplace.28 In response to the Taylor case, the Board declared that “the failure of Alabama to indict the boys involved, are examples of the fascist ‘white supremacy’ doctrine and a flat abridgement of the rights of Negroes of United States citizens.”29 The board was insistent that by not punishing the rapists, it would be nearly impossible to win in a fight against anti-democratic forces and fascism throughout the world. Like the soldiers, the UPWA recognized the hypocrisy in fighting for equality and democracy abroad when it did not yet exist in the United States. 
      
      In an article in the Chicago Defender, Harold Preece, a southern white man, strongly expressed his desire to have the men who raped Recy Taylor punished, an unusual position for a white man during the years of her trial. He urges his audience to remember Scottsboro, a case in 1932 in which nine black boys were accused of raping two white girls. He correctly identifies the inherent flaw in the justice system that makes itself known when the nine African American boys were falsely accused and nearly burned and white men who are clearly guilty get off without prosecution. Preece is unusually perceptive for a southern white man in the 1940’s, and understands the ways in which the white man controls not only the courts, but the fate of African American women: “Recy Taylor cries for justice in Alabama – and not only Recy Taylor but every other Southern Negro woman forced to serve a white man’s greed in the cotton patch or a white man’s lust on a lonely road…For the old dying South holds its thin lease on live only by devouring black flesh.”30
     
      White on black rape was a method of intimidation and social control both during slavery and after it was abolished; sex had huge power in preserving the South’s racial hierarchy. Rumors of rape and sexualized violence were used as claims by white people to justify segregation and racism.31 Rape effectively tore the black family apart and heavily interfered with the forming and maintenance of marital relationships. Slavery institutionalized and normalized the practice of white slave owners having sexual access to their black female slaves, regardless of whether she had a husband on the plantation, rendering both black men and black women completely powerless. E.G. Jackson explains this powerlessness in Conrad’s article in the Chicago Defender: “The weight of hundreds of years hangs over us like so much iron.”32 During the Jim Crow era, “White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages…raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy”.33 A black woman was reminded regularly that her body was not her own, whether through her own personal experience of being raped or watching those she knew become victims of sexual and racial subjugation. Rape laws were not designed to protect black women; centuries of cultural history exist to support the view that they were created to protect either the sanctity of white marriage or the white man from interference with his spousal relationship.34 The punishment for rape was largely dependent on race; in a meeting in Montgomery to protest the jury’s decision, a white woman screamed for the death penalty for the seven men, only fitting because if it were six black men accused of raping a white woman, they would be lynched almost immediately.35 In the 1940’s, many felt it necessary to protect white womanhood by preventing any kind of contact with African American men, but saw no issue with white men’s sexual predations and the effect they had on black women.36 Rape rarely has eye witnesses and in 1944, it was close to impossible to find physical evidence to substantiate the victim’s claim. Because of the difficulty proving rape, it was frequently the emotional “complaint” of a black woman against the insistent denial of a white man, and this deadlock was resolved by taking the side of the perpetrator, whose word was more highly regarded. Victim-blaming was common, and black women were frequently seen as a “jezebel”, towards whom violence is justified because she tempted the white man and took advantage of him. 
      
      Though most women suffered from some level social and political discrimination, there was a significant intersectional struggle for African American women. In the 1940’s, Alabama was not only misogynistic, it was racist. As described eloquently by Miss Henrietta Buckmaster as she accepted co-chairmanship of the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor “The south suffers from a great many diseases, one of the most virulent being the Cult of the White Woman…The effect has been the complete degradation of the southern white woman’s dignity…If the white woman suffers from this cult, you can imagine the burden it places upon the Negro woman.”37 In the 1940’s (and beyond) the black female body was taboo, and silence, as well as a lack of sex education, contributed to the struggle of black rape victims. A study done in Maryland in the late 1930’s found that whites were twice as likely to discuss sex at home.38 This lack of dialogue stemmed from stigma surrounding black female sexuality and a need for protection against negative stereotypes.39 This effectively kept African American women from being able to speak as easily about rape, feeling less confident and less knowledgeable, without information about sex and the female body. As stated eloquently by Christina Simmons, from the University of Windsor, “African American women confronted a particularly insidious and racially charged form of the virgin-whore dilemma that all women faced.”40 On one hand, black women were seen as a foil to white women, who were put on a pedestal of sexual purity, but on the other hand, they were not seen as attractive when they behaved “respectably.” The virgin-whore dichotomy is an entirely misogynistic construct, and was filled with racist undertones in the 1940’s; a black woman could not win regardless of how she expressed her sexuality.
      
       Recy Taylor’s case serves as representation of race relations between white men and African American women in the 1940’s, both in her actual rape and in the injustice that manifested in her trial. Taylor’s rape highlights the hypocrisy of the United States, involved in fights globally for democracy in the 1940’s, yet unable to create that reality for its own citizens. Though Taylor’s name is rarely mentioned in history books and most analyses of the circumstances that inspired the Civil Rights movement revolve around black men being lynched or jailed, the overlooked stories of countless black women who were raped by white men were hugely instrumental in shaping the fight for equality in the decades following her rape. 
      


Bibliography:

PRIMARY: 
* Atwater, Fred. “$600 to Rape Wife? Ala. Whites Make Offer to Recy Taylor Mate! VICTIM OF WHITE ALABAMA RAPISTS.” Chicago Defender, January 27, 1945. National ed. Microform.
* Conrad, Earl. “Dixie Sex Crimes Against Negro Women Widespread.” Chicago Defender (Chicago), March 10, 1945, National ed. Microform
* Conrad, Earl. “Alabama Has No Race Problem, Claims Official.” Chicago Defender (Chicago), March 11, 1945, National ed. Microform. 
* Cooper Jackson, Esther. “Negroes Flee Ala. Town as White Mob Takes Over. “Chicago Defender (Chicago), August 11, 1945, National ed. Microform.
* “Demands Attackers in Recy Taylor Be Punished.” New York Amsterdam News, February 10, 1945. Microform. 
* “Kidnapping, Rape Spur Move for Equal Justice.” Pittsburgh Courier, December 9, 1944, City ed. Microform. 
* National Group Formed to Get Action in Taylor Case.” Atlanta Daily World, January 6, 1945. Microform. 
* “NMP Women Act in Recy Taylor Case.” Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland), October 13, 1945. Microform. 
* “Open Drive to Aid Ala. Attack Victim.” Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland, January 6, 1945. Microform.
* Preece, Harold. “The Living South: “Southern Chivalry” Vs. Recy Taylor.” Chicago Defender, January 13, 1945.
* “Seventy-Five Groups Back Recy Taylor: Henrietta Buckmaster, Rev. Robeson Heads New Committee to Push Case.” New York Amsterdam News, January 6, 1945, City ed. Microform.
* “Soldiers Ask Action in Recy Taylor Case.” Atlanta Daily World, March 4, 1945. Microform.
* “Union Leaders Urging Action on Taylor Case: Committee on Recy Taylor Rape Case Has Support from Unions Throughout Country.” New York Amsterdam News, February 10, 1945, City ed. Microform.
*  “21 Airmen Urge Action on Rapists.” Chicago Defender, May 12, 1945, National ed. Microform.

SECONDARY: 
* Adam Steedman Thake. "African American Women and Sex Education in the 1940s." New Historian. June 07, 2015, http://www.newhistorian.com/african-american-women-and-sex-education-in-.... (Accessed October 6, 2016).
* Conrad, Earl. Jim Crow America. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947.
* “Hidden Pattern of Rape Helped Stir Civil Rights Movement.” NPR. February 28, 2011, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=134131369. (Accessed October 30, 2016). 
* McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 7.
* “The Roots of Resistance: The Social Justice Context of Sexual Harassment Law.” Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. June 15, 2016, http://advocatesaz.org/2016/06/15/the-roots-of-resistance-the-social-jus.... (Accessed October 18, 2016).
* Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. 

* 1 “Hidden Pattern of Rape Helped Stir Civil Rights Movement.” NPR. February 28, 2011, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=134131369. (Accessed October 30, 2016). 
2 Ibid.
3 McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 7.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid. 
7 Ibid., 8.
8 Ibid., 9.
9 Cooper Jackson, Esther. “Negroes Flee Ala. Town as White Mob Takes Over. “Chicago Defender (Chicago), August 11, 1945, National ed. Microform.
10  Ibid.
11 Conrad, Earl. “Dixie Sex Crimes Against Negro Women Widespread.” Chicago Defender (Chicago), March 10, 1945, National ed. Microform. 
12 Ibid.
13 Conrad, “Dixie Sex Crimes Against Negro Women Widespread,” March 10, 1945.
14 Ibid.
15 Conrad, Earl. “Alabama Has No Race Problem, Claims Official.” Chicago Defender (Chicago), March 11, 1945, National ed. Microform. 
16 National Group Formed to Get Action in Taylor Case.” Atlanta Daily World, January 6, 1945. Microform. 
17 Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. 
18 “National Group Formed to Get Action in Taylor Case,” January 6, 1945. 
19 “Kidnapping, Rape Spur Move for Equal Justice.” Pittsburgh Courier, December 9, 1944, City ed. Microform. 
20 “Open Drive to Aid Ala. Attack Victim.” Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland, January 6, 1945. Microform.
21 McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 17
22 Ibid., 19.
23 Ibid., 33. 
24 “Soldiers Ask Action in Recy Taylor Case.” Atlanta Daily World, March 4, 1945. Microform.
25 “NMP Women Act in Recy Taylor Case.” Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland), October 13, 1945. Microform. 
26 “21 Airmen Urge Action on Rapists.” Chicago Defender, May 12, 1945, National ed. Microform. 
27 McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 38.
28 “Union Leaders Urging Action on Taylor Case: Committee on Recy Taylor Rape Case Has Support from Unions Throughout Country.” New York Amsterdam News, February 10, 1945, City ed. Microform.
29 “Demands Attackers in Recy Taylor Be Punished.” New York Amsterdam News, February 10, 1945. Microform. 

30 Harold Preece. “The Living South: “Southern Chivalry” Vs. Recy Taylor.” Chicago Defender, January 13, 1945.
31 Conrad, Earl. Jim Crow America. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947.
32 Conrad, “Dixie Sex Crimes Against Negro Women Widespread,” March 10, 1945.
33 McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, xix. 
34 “The Roots of Resistance: The Social Justice Context of Sexual Harassment Law.” Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. June 15, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2016. http://advocatesaz.org/2016/06/15/the-roots-of-resistance-the-social-jus....
35 Atwater, Fred. “$600 to Rape Wife? Ala. Whites Make Offer to Recy Taylor Mate! VICTIM OF WHITE ALABAMA RAPISTS.” Chicago Defender, January 27, 1945. National ed. Microform.
36 McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 61.
37 “Seventy-Five Groups Back Recy Taylor: Henrietta Buckmaster, Rev. Robeson Heads New Committee to Push Case.” New York Amsterdam News, January 6, 1945, City ed. Microform.
38 Adam Steedman Thake. "African American Women and Sex Education in the 1940s." New Historian. June 07, 2015, http://www.newhistorian.com/african-american-women-and-sex-education-in-.... (Accessed October 6, 2016).
39 Ibid. 
40 Ibid.