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Sexual Violence Against African-American Women: Beyond Slavery, Beyond The Physical

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The Civil War literally changed the “landscape” of America overnight. At least 600,000 men, both Union and Confederate, never returned to their families. Five years of separation forced the North and South to live as “one”. In theory, slaves became freedmen and equal to their white counterparts. Post-bellum America was difficult for everyone, but it was the South who endured the most hardship. Southern Democrats were now at the mercy of Northern Republicans, forced to rebuild their governments with the federal “blueprint” in mind. Former government officials and property-owners found themselves powerless and landless, respectively. The plantation economy of the South fell victim to out-sourcing, overproduction, and the harsh reality that free labor was now obsolete. Speaking of free labor, freedmen were now in control of their own destinies. Many African-Americans were uncertain of what their “destiny” might be, but one thing was certain: they wanted to be truly free. White Southerners refused to let blacks become equals; no set of amendments or laws were going to stop them. This white “goal” set the stage for race relations in the South for the next hundred or so years. Whites had numerous tactics to ensure that white supremacy reigned. Antagonizing at the polls, circumventing laws that protected blacks, and segregating ever aspect of life imaginable were some of the obvious strategies we see in our history textbooks. However, one tactic is often overlooked, despite its significance. The systematic sexual violence against African-American women gave insight to the mentality and hypocrisy of white supremacy, transcending slavery, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. Not only did the constant raping of black women by white men transcend centuries, it evolved in meaning. During slavery, black women suffered in silence as their master’s abused them. The Reconstruction marked the beginning in which freedwomen were speaking out, captivating the nation’s interest. The Civil Rights era used the unfortunate tarnishing of black womanhood as a political and social tool to highlight the injustices against an entire race. Two articles in Women, Families and Communities dwell on the “overlooked” white supremacy tactic that chained African-Americans for centuries. In addition, the articles acknowledge that African-American women did play a role in the freedom struggle.

Hannah Rosen’s article sheds light on the sexual violence against freedwomen in the context of the Reconstruction. The article centers on the1866 Memphis Riot. The riot began in May began as a confrontation between African-American Union soldiers and Memphis’ city’s white police force. Three days of unrest left several dead, wounded and homeless. From the riots, five freedwomen claimed to be victims of white rape. Virtually unheard of at the time, the women had the chance to testify before a congressional committee. It also brought national attention to the atrocities going on in the South (Rosen 10-11). Expanding on Rosen’s article, Danielle L. McGuire explores the significance of sexual violence against African-American women during the Civil Rights movement. One particular rape case out of Tallahassee, Florida in 1959 brought the nation to their knees. Betty Jean Owens, a college student at Florida A&M University was raped seven times by four white young men collectively the night of a formal dance. The trial was a first in that the men were found guilty of the rape of an African-American woman. The Owens’ case, along with many other controversial ones at that time, helped repress the notion of white supremacy and advance the goals of Civil Rights activist nationwide.

The articles may have focused on two time periods with almost a century between them,

but one theme is clear. Sexual violence against African-American women has always been

synonymous with white supremacy. During slavery, slave owners had their way with their

“property”. Yes, masters, overseers, and drivers found sexual and sadistic pleasure in exploiting

black women. However, according to McGuire, “[s]lave owners’ access to black women’s bodies strengthened their political, social, and economic power, partly because colonial laws made the offspring of slave women the property of their masters” (195). The thought of future cotton-picker could justify the violation of someone’s wife or mother. The emancipation of slave under Abraham Lincoln, theoretically freed the slaves. White felt threatened by the thought of freedmen roaming as equals. They felt that white supremacy had to be reestablished and maintained, making rape necessary. The same mentality carried well into the next century. White men always felt “entitled” to black women. Having control over black woman not only denigrated black womanhood, it had control over black manhood. If black men could not protect their women, how powerful can they really be? If black men do not have the means to protect their women, why should they be treated like their white counterparts?

Stereotyping is another theme that gives insight into the sexual crimes that took place. Black men were thought to be beastly vagabonds. They allegedly used their intimidating demeanor to prey on white women. Thanks to newspapers and police, whites depicted freedwomen as “unvirtuous” (Rosen 17). The stereotypes black women faced helped undermine the seriousness of their rapes. Is rape legitimate when the victim is automatically dismissed as sexually promiscuous? For the longest, black women could not be considered rape victims. It was evident during the congressional and court hearings, victims were taken for a joke. The repeating of questions and the use of certain words were aimed to discredit victim testimonies and nullify cases altogether. If freedwomen were not considered rape victims, they would forever be at the mercy of white men wanting to assert white dominance. If you are not being punished,

why stop?

Hypocrisy also was an important part of these articles. The duplicity of rape was a reality until court



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