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Narratives on the lynching of black females in the United States have rarely commanded much more than minor postscripts in the lynching scholarship, thus leaving the historical picture of lynching violence incomplete and distorted. To correct for this unfinished portrait of American lynchings, the present work provides a contextual history on black females victimized largely by white male terrorists. To distinguish black female lynchings and bring into sharper focus the wretched horror suffered by black women and young black girls, this work constructs an inventory of 188 confirmed cases of black females lynched mostly by white mobsters from 1838 to 1969. A contextual history of black female lynchings supports the notion that vigilante violence against black women and girls was a means of gendered racial oppression in American society; black female lynchings were symbolic and cautioned marginalized black women and girls to maintain their inferior place in society to white male supremacy. One objective of this paper is to bring voice to this population of black females wronged by the interlocking systems of gender, race, and class oppression in United States society. Regrettably, black female oppression as an artifact of gendered racism remains a formidable characteristic of today’s society.
The story of the black women who were caught up in the violent whirlwind of lynching has largely been hidden from history.—Huber (1998, p. 137)
Narratives on the victimization of black women and girls through lynching violence are strikingly absent in historical studies. Scholars have noted that “most studies of racial violence have paid little attention to the particular suffering of black women,” and as a result, “racial violence against black women has been little understood” (Simmons, 2015, p. 2). One reason for this lapse in the lynching scholarship is that significant error challenges the reliability of what little attention scholars have presented on the history of black female lynchings. The more widespread difficulties encountered in researching female lynchings involve uncovering factual inaccuracies on the gender and race of lynching victims, discerning victims who did not actually die from injuries suffered from mob violence, and identifying victims who more accurately perished from private murders or lawful executions unrelated to lynching activity (Baker, 2012). It is also difficult for researchers to ascertain black female lynchings because historical records often identify female victims as simply wife, mother, daughter, or sister without reference to a name (Huber, 1998). Historical records invariably identify lynched black women as “Negress.” In one account, a newspaper identified a female lynched in Rayville, Louisiana, in March 1892 as an “unnamed black woman.” Probing deeper into the historical record reveals that the lynching actually involved a fifteen-year-old black girl named Ella Smith who worked as a house servant for W. R. Helmer on the Grenwell plantation in Richland Parish. Authorities accused Ella of poisoning eight members of the Helmer family and an unnamed black man who worked the stables on the plantation. A mob of masked men overpowered police escorting Ella to a local jail after she supposedly confessed to poisoning the affluent white family and hanged her from a large cottonwood tree. Ella reportedly added rat poison to a pot of morning coffee though none of the family members or the black man died from the poisoning. According to newspaper reports, Ella “often displayed a bad and reckless temper” and she “showed the greatest indifference to the probable results” of poisoning her employer’s family. Actually, Ella’s motive for the crime was revenge against the black man who had “in some manner offended the kitchen girl” (Pocahontas County Sun, 1892, March 17; Atwood Patriot, 1892, March 18; San Antonio Daily Light, 1892, March 14).
Many black female lynchings remain unidentified in the historical record because secreted lynchings of black women and girls took place where “disappearance [was] shrouded in mystery, for they [were] dispatched quickly and without general knowledge. In some lonely swamp a small body of men [did] the job formerly done by a vast, howling, blood-thirsty mob” (Berg, 2011, p. 165). Another important factor for the lack of information on black female lynchings is that the historical record reveals an overwhelming fixation on white women and the myth of the black rapist though the lynching violence associated with these outrages accounted for less than a third of black male lynchings (Berg, 2011; Hair & Wood, 2013; Wells-Barnett, 1895). The silence about female lynching victims accents the failure of anti-lynching organizations in the early decades of the twentieth century to dedicate ample attention to female lynching victims—only rarely did anti-lynching activists “mention the scattered lynchings of African American women as evidence to undermine the rape mythology surrounding southern mob violence” (Huber, 1998, p. 139). In any event, the number of black women and girls dead from lynching violence are surely undercounts and scholars will likely never know the actual number of black females murdered in response to white male loathing of the black race.
Nevertheless, enough information is available on black female lynchings that scholars recognize that white male vigilantism toward black women and girls was a means of gendered racial oppression in American society; black female lynchings were symbolic and cautioned black women and girls to maintain their inferior place in society to white male supremacy (Garland, 2005). White men regularly raped black women before lynching them, though such degradation rarely accompanied the lynching of white females (Baker, 2016). Mobsters had no concerns for black motherhood when they lynched pregnant black women and teenage girls; at least ten black female lynching victims were heavy with child at the time of their murders. Worse still, as in the cases of Mary Turner in 1918 and Dorothy Malcolm in 1946, accenting the human tragedy of white male violence against black females involved cutting unborn fetuses from their abdomens (Baker, 1908; Marable, 1985; Newton, 2016; and compare Wexler, 2004). The “evil ingenuity” of a white Texas mob is also instructive—the men sealed a black woman in a wooden barrel lined with long sharp nails driven through the sides, and then rolled the barrel up and down a hill until she was a bloody corpse (Dray, 2003, pp. 103-104). Additionally, as the lynchings of Ella Smith and other young black girls reveal, mobsters harbored no misgivings about savagely murdering black children—even infants. These and other like events make it understandable why commentators on vigilante violence frequently denote black lynchings as domestic terrorism, genocide, reigns of terror, massacres, and a holocaust.
Compiling an inventory of black female lynchings in the United States required building a master list of unconfirmed black female lynchings from tabulated data in existing lynching inventories and academic sources. The study used several registries to assemble the master list of black female lynchings, though most of the cases included in the master list derived from inventories made up entirely of female lynchings, namely, DeLongoria (2006), Feimster (2009), O’Shea (1999), and Segrave (2010). A major failing of these registries, however, is that they draw from earlier data sources that scholars have challenged as inaccurate; specifically, lynching data collected by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Chicago Tribune, and the Department of Records and Archives at Tuskegee University. Scholars explain that these primary data sources “are so flawed that sole reliance on them could possibly lead to misleading conclusions about the era” (Beck & Tolnay, 1997, p. 259). Indeed, factual oversights in these inventories render the lynching record so dubious that they challenge the accuracy of the historical narratives accompanying the inventories. Necessary to compiling an accurate inventory of black female lynchings was to confirm, disconfirm, or unconfirm each lynching in the master list using commercial digitized newspaper archives, academic sources, and other reputable resources.1 The digitized archival newspaper sources used for this study were NewspaperARCHIVE.com, Newspapers.com, and ChroniclingAmerica.com.2
As a form of “public memory,” newspaper accounts of black female lynchings allow researchers to recreate the events in academic and literary narratives to bring greater insight into the contextual realities of black female oppression in the lynching era (Simien, 2011). Yet, there is an intrinsic bias in this public memory; the press often portrayed black female victims of white male violence as women and girls guilty of their supposed crimes and thus deserving of their maltreatment. Newspapers frequently used supportive language when describing the horrific actions of lynch mobs against black females and callously condemned lynching victims. What’s more, the white southern press often provided moral and legal justification for mob actions against black women and girls. That is, as Sloan (1994) notes, the press upheld the social order and shaped public opinion on black lynchings. Berg (2011) explains also that researchers studying black female lynchings must recognize that “when a black woman was lynched, the white press usually assumed her guilt and defamed her character” (p. 109; see also Feimster, 2009; Perloff, 2000; Tolnay & Beck, 1995; Arellano, 2012; Waltrep, 2002).3 Take the case of Eliza Woods lynched in Madison County, Tennessee, in August 1886 when a large mob overwhelmed guards at the county jail, abducted Eliza, bound her hands behind her, dragged her naked body through the streets, hanged her from a tree near the local courthouse, and then riddled her body with bullets. Eliza refused to confess to the killing. Eliza was a seventy-year-old cook who reportedly poisoned her white employer, Mary Wooten, though the only evidence of Eliza’s guilt was that the dead woman’s stomach contained arsenic and that authorities found a box of rat poison in Eliza’s house. As one commentator reminds us, “the traditional fears of Southern planters that their black servants were constantly plotting to poison them made [black female domestics] expedient scapegoats of the unexpected loss of a loved family member” (Berg, 2011, p. 100). The white press disparaged Eliza as “a black female devil” and extolled her white employer as “an esteemed Christian lady.” To malign Eliza even further, one newspaper claimed that Eliza was responsible for the poisoning deaths of more than a dozen people including eleven children (Evening Bulletin, 1886, August 21). Another newspaper confirmed the legitimacy of Eliza’s lynching to the black community by reporting that “a notable feature [of her lynching] was the large number of Negroes present, including a number of women. All of them endorsed the action of the mob. All of them feared her.” No newspaper provided any supporting evidence of Eliza’s alleged crimes (Logansport Journal, 1886, August 20; Syracuse Daily Standard, 1886, August 21; The Tennessean, 1886, August 19; Wayne Register, 1886, August 27). Correspondingly, newspaper publishers cannot claim a naïveté in their denigration of lynched black females in support of white male supremacy. A case in point is that a major Alabama newspaper recently recognized its history of biased publication of black lynchings when it openly apologized for its “shameful” coverage of mob violence waged against blacks from the 1870s through the 1950s. The paper took to task its own “careless and dehumanizing coverage of lynchings [that] fed a false narrative about African Americans and often assumed the victim was guilty of the crime” (Moench, 2018, April 26).
There remains considerable debate among scholars on the definition of lynching (Bailey & Tolnay, 2015; Rushdy, 2012; Tolnay & Beck, 1995; Waldrep, 2000). As a result, there is no consensus among social historians on the definition of lynching. Scholars largely subscribe to the NAACP’s description of lynching: there must be evidence that a person suffered death; the person must have met death illegally; a group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing; and the group must have acted under the pretext of service to justice or tradition. The present study used this generally accepted definitional rubric to confirm, disconfirm, or unconfirm cases of black female lynchings. Specifically, verification of a black female lynching followed where at least one newspaper story, an academic source, or other legitimate source revealed factual evidence that a black female victim died unlawfully at the hands of persons acting under a pretense of service to justice or tradition.
Despite the limitations intrinsic to the NAACP definition of lynching espoused in the lynching literature (Bailey & Tolnay, 2015, pp. 3-4), the process of identifying black female lynching victims using the definition resulted in a list of 188 confirmed black female lynchings catalogued in Table 1 (see Appendix).4 The inventory of black female lynchings includes the victims’ names and ages, the date and place of lynchings, the race of lynch mobs, and the allegations or reasons for the lynchings. Included in the inventory of black female lynchings are cases involving riots and mass killings though these murders do not strictly comport with the commonly accepted definitional rubric of lynching. Some researchers believe that these cases should not be included in an inventory of confirmed female lynchings though other researchers believe otherwise. Whites killed thousands of blacks, including women and children, in race riots that one scholar denotes as “racial massacres” (Bell, 2004). It is important that researchers include black female killings resulting from race riots or mass killings as lynchings; after all, as Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (1944) explains, “Sometimes the killing and beating of a large number of Negroes is called a riot: we prefer to call this a terrorization or massacre and consider it as a magnified, or mass, lynching” (p. 566). These questionable cases remain in the confirmed black female lynching inventory “to encourage others to make their own determinations about what should and should not be included in the inventory,” to use Carrigan’s (2004, p. 296) language.
Detailed in Table 2 are the characteristics of black female lynchings by region in the United States (see Appendix). The data include the several decades in which mobs lynched black females, the ages of black female victims at the time of their killings, the race of lynch mobs, the methods utilized by lynch mobs to murder black females, and the reasons for mobs lynching black females. The regionalization of black female lynchings is important to the study of lynchings because, unlike other regions of the country, lynchings served the unique purpose of subjugating black females to white male supremacy throughout the southern caste system (Bailey, Tolnay, Beck & Laird, 2011). As a result, lethal mob violence toward black women and girls was largely a southern phenomenon with the vast majority of black female lynchings occurring in the South Atlantic, East South Central, and West South Central states of Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Mobs lynched five adult black females in the Middle Atlantic, East North Central, West North Central, and Pacific states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, and California that comprised nearly 3 percent of confirmed black female lynchings between 1838 and 1969. Though these non-southern killings comprised a very small proportion of the overall number of black female lynchings historically, their occurrence reminds us that mobs murdering black women and girls were not restricted to the South (Pfeifer, 2013). There are no recorded black female lynchings in New England or Mountain states. Modernly, scholars have linked the regionalization of lynchings to elevated homicide rates, use of the death penalty, the strength of white nationalism, church burnings, levels of incarceration, and the enforcement of hate crime laws in southern states (see Bailey & Tolnay, 2015, pp. 28-31).
Identifying the ages of black female lynching victims is important because, as one social historian has recently noted, “Destroying black children is an indelible part of a long American tradition of preserving white supremacy” (Patton, 2014, February 18). Accordingly, the beating, lynching, shooting, burning, raping, and the killing of black adolescents in dynamite explosions were essential to maintaining white male supremacy in southern society. For this reason, it is imperative that scholars parse out for analysis the lynching of young black girls in the South. In doing so, researchers avoid erasing the history of young black girls as unique lynching victims. Only then can scholars assure that analysis of lynching atrocities suffered by young black girls remain distinct from the mob murders of older black women. Clearly, this requisite derives from recently published works historicizing black female childhood and the gender and race-based violence accenting their young lives (Chatelain, 2015; King, 2005, 2011; Simmons, 2015; Wright, 2016). The difficulty with realizing this imperative, however, is the dilemma confronting researchers to identifying young black girls as lynching victims in newspaper stories, only rarely did newspapers report the ages of black females subjected to lynching violence. Table 2 reveals that the ages for roughly 70 percent of lynched black females are unavailable, unknown, or otherwise unreported in newspaper stories. Of the fifty-seven cases of confirmed black female lynchings where the age of the victim is available, twenty-two cases involved black girls younger than eighteen years old. Other than the horrific slayings experienced by young black girls, newspaper accounts of young black female lynchings reveal precious little about the lives of these girls (Bailey & Tolnay, 2015).5 Thus, any discernable patterns in the ages of black females at the time of their mob killings are merely conjectural.
Still, the historical record on black female lynchings reveals that young black girls were infrequently the immediate targets of murdering mobs; most of their deaths were secondary or “collateral victims” to the deliberate killing of their fathers, brothers, and on occasion, husbands (Huber, 1998). Most often, mobsters murdered their intended black male targets by firebombing or shooting indiscriminately into black men’s homes and in doing so killed their wives and daughters. The historical record shows that at other times mobsters deliberately murdered teenage black girls in retaliation for their fathers or brothers’ misdeeds. As Simien (2011) notes, these female deaths were not incidental, but essential to maintaining white supremacy as punishment for defying the social order.
Newspaper stories reveal that in at least six cases mobs deliberately targeted young black girls for offenses that the girls reportedly committed against whites. Accordingly, fifteen-year-old Julia Brandt hanged for her part in the robbery-murder of a white woman named Ada Kennedy, fifteen-year-old Ella Smith hanged supposedly for poisoning a white family, a fifteen-year-old girl surnamed Taylor hanged reportedly for the murderous assault of a white woman, seventeen-year-old Jennie Collins hanged for allegedly assisting Jack Farmer as a fugitive in the killing of a white man named Earl Chase, seventeen-year-old Marie Scott hanged apparently for her part in the killing of a white man named Lemuel Pearce, and sixteen-year-old Alma Howze hanged for ostensibly participating in the murder of a white man named Johnston.
The lethal brutality accenting black female lynchings involved various forms of mob action other than white-on-black violence. One classification scheme explains that although white mobs with black victims comprised the vast majority of interracial mob violence, the intraracial violence of white mobs with white victims was only slightly more familiar than black mobs with black victims (Beck & Tolnay, 1997; Hill, 2010). Though black female lynchings largely involved white mobs, black-on-black mob violence was an aberrant feature of black female lynchings. Black mobs lynched black women on at least three occasions: black vigilantes burned to death Mary Hollenbeck in Georgia in 1886 for the killing of a black child, shot to death Anna Marby in Louisiana in 1900 during a race riot, and hanged Laura Mitchell in Arkansas in 1910 for spousal murder. American Indian mobs also lynched black females. In at least one case in 1895, a Choctaw Indian mob in eastern Texas dismembered the body of Louisiana Fisher, an elderly black woman accused of witchcraft that the Choctaws feared. Also uncommon were integrated black and white mobs that lynched at least three black women and one young black girl for crimes against whites. Integrated mobs hanged young Julia Brandt in South Carolina in 1880 for robbery-murder; burned to death Jane Campbell in Louisiana in 1881 for arson, hanged Harriet Finch in North Carolina in 1885 for murder, and hanged Eliza Woods in Tennessee in 1886 for poisoning.
Walter White (1929), a civil rights activist and executive secretary of the NAACP, believed that lynching in the South exhibited “a bestiality unknown even in the most remote and uncivilized parts of the world” (p. 21). More recently, social critic Elliott Jaspin (2007) has noted that white mobsters used “the most unimaginable brutality” to enforce white patriarchal control over the southern black underclass (p. 60). These commentators make it clear that contrary to conventional notions about lynching, “these exhibitions of sadism” did not exclusively involve hanging victims from a nearby tree or railroad trestle. Accenting the history of black lynchings was a “ritualistic hatred” and “public hysteria” culminating in “public spectacles of mockery, humiliation, and torture” (Brundage, 1993, p. 92). Black women and girls suffered horrendous forms of killing: burning alive, decapitation, bludgeoning to death, whipping to death, drowning, stabbing to death, cutting victims’ throats, and dying in dynamite explosions. Mobsters burned to death at least fourteen black women and girls. Though roughly two-thirds of black female lynching victims died by hanging or shooting, mob lynchings of black females often involved more than one killing method such as hanging and shooting, hanging and burning, and shooting and burning. These are the same killing methods mobsters reserved for black males; as Berg (2011) remarks, “when black women were accused of especially shocking offenses, white lynchers insisted that they deserved the same rough justice as black men” (p. 109).
One of the more horrific acts of lynching savagery against black women involved the killing of Mary Turner in May 1918. Mary and her husband Haynes Turner were tenant farmers on Hampton Smith’s land in Valdosta, Georgia, and had recently quarreled with Smith about wages due the Turners. A black man named Sidney Johnson, fed up with Smith’s abuse of black workers, shot and killed Smith and wounded his wife. A mob quickly formed after learning of Smith’s murder. Johnson escaped a posse searching for him but hanged Haynes Turner and left his lifeless body hanging for two days after learning that those involved in Smith’s murder had plotted the attack at Turner’s house. When Mary threatened to swear out arrest warrants against members of the mob, the county sheriff arrested Mary, and while transporting her to a nearby jail, the mob abducted and hanged Mary. White (1929), who interviewed members of the mob responsible for Mary’s death, gave a candid account of the lynching:
Securely they bound her ankles together and, by them, hanged her to a tree. Gasoline and motor oil were thrown upon her dangling clothes; a match wrapped her in sudden flames. ‘Mister, you ought to’ve heard the nigger wench howl!’ a member of the mob boasted to me a few days later as we stood at the place of Mary Turner’s death. The clothes burned from her crispy body, in which, unfortunately, life still lingered, a man stepped towards the woman and, with his knife, ripped open the abdomen in a crude Caesarean operation. Out tumbled the prematurely born child. Two feeble cries it gave—and received for answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form. Under the tree of death was scooped a shallow hold. The rope about Mary Turner’s charred ankles was cut, and swiftly her body tumbled into its grave. Not without a sense of humor or of appropriateness was some member of the mob. An empty whiskey-bottle, quart size, was given for headstone. Into its neck was stuck a half-smoked cigar—that had saved the delicate nostrils of one member of the mob from the stench of burning human flesh. (p. 27)
The motivation of mobs to lynch black women and girls were multifaceted. Mobsters lynched black women and girls for many of the same reasons that they lynched black men, aside from the “rape myth” phenomena. That is, lynching violence toward black women and girls was largely in retaliation for alleged crimes against whites involving cases of murder, arson, robbery, and theft. Black women were more likely to use poisoning as a weapon than black males given the position of black females in white households as domestic servants. Documented cases of black female lynchings reveal that mob lynchings of black women and girls resulted in part from black females lashing out against their white male oppressors. Huber (1998) points out that the “evidence suggests that the majority of female victims of mob violence were sharecroppers’ wives, domestics, transients, widows, prostitutes, and other economically and socially marginalized women who lacked major protection” (p. 137). Racial fanaticism frequently motivated mob action against black women and girls; mobs lynched black women when their actions transcended racial boundaries in cases of miscegenation—“white southerners considered interracial sex taboo” (Simmons, 2015, p. 84). White terrorists lashed out against black women and girls when their husbands and fathers engaged in political activities such as registering black voters or organizing black labor. Black women and girls’ resistance to sexual attacks, sassing white men, or exhibiting an unsavory character often triggered lethal mob violence. Hostile race relations threatening the social stability of the southern caste order hastened black female lynchings. Retaliation against civil rights activists moved white men to dynamite black homes and black churches often killing black women and girls; the historical record identifies at least thirteen black women and girls killed by whites during periods of racial unrest.
The racial oppression and violent persecution suffered by black women and girls at the hands of white men surely manifested into deep emotional and psychological trauma for some black females (King, 2005, 2011; Thompson-Miller, Feagin & Picca, 2015; Thompson-Miller, 2011). Undoubtedly, the tyranny of gendered racism typifying the harsh existence of black women and girls drove them to commit horrific crimes against their white oppressors. One measure of this pain and suffering is the violence that some black women directed toward children. The historical record reveals that four black women murdered black and white children. The most troubling of these cases involved Mary Hollenbeck who several newspapers reported in July 1886 committed “one of the more horrible stories of human depravity.” The reports reveal that a black man named Samuel Frick had left his four-year-old daughter in the care of Mary while he worked at a turpentine still in a nearby county. When Frick returned and called on Mary to reclaim his daughter, Mary could not produce the child and gave “many evasive and contradictory replies as to arouse a suspicion that something was wrong.” With the help of neighbors, Frick searched the premises and soon found his child’s body hidden in a salt pork barrel. With the threat of Frick killing her with an axe, Mary admitted that two days after Frick had left the child in her care neighbors called on her to prepare dinner for a neighborhood picnic. “Having no meat, and knowing that she would get no money unless she served some, she determined to kill the child and cook its flesh.” Mary had killed the child with an axe, dismembered it, and served it at the picnic as a stew. Soon after her admission, a group of Tattnall County blacks in Georgia took Mary into a field chained her to a post in the middle of a pine wood heap saturated with kerosene, and set the mound on fire. “In fifteen minutes she fell among the blazing knots and was burned to a crisp, nothing remaining after the fire died out but a few charred bones and a ring which she had on one of her fingers” (Palo Alto Reporter, 1886, August 6; Elkhart Review, 1886, July 28; Bloomington Daily Leader, 1886, July 28).
Table 2 also shows the number of black female lynchings by decades from the 1830s through the 1960s. The historical record reveals that no black female lynchings took place during colonial slavery; the prevalence of lethal violence did not develop until after the mid-19th century. A few black female lynchings occurred in antebellum slavery, but the vast majority (roughly 80%) of black female lynchings took place in the Jim Crow South beginning in the late 1870s. The historical record also confirms white mobsters killing black women and girls in the civil rights period from the mid-1950s through the 1960s.
Slave historians distinguish colonial slavery (before 1790) from antebellum slavery (after 1790) to acknowledge the variant forms of slavery that developed in discrete regions of the United States at differing times and for separate reasons (Berlin, 1980; Kolchin, 2003). The historical record reveals that no black female lynchings occurred during colonial slavery. One of the more important reasons for the absence of black female lynchings in colonial slavery is that mob violence rarely involved deadly assaults before the mid-19th century when non-lethal physical attacks, tar-and-feathering, and banishment largely accented collective violence against marginalized persons (Berg, 2011; see also Rushdy, 2012). It was only after the mid-19th century that “mobocracy” became more frequent and more deadly.
Several events gave rise to increasing rates of collective lethal violence when the United States entered a period of wide-ranging economic, social, and political development. For one, the American population increased dramatically in the first five decades after the war for independence. The non-immigrant population more than quadrupled by the mid-19th century, and the substantial increase in immigrant populations of mostly persons of Irish and German descent directly challenged the dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture in United States society. About one-fifth of the nation’s population lived in urban centers while much of the remaining population moved westward into fertile lands to grow cash crops essential to eastern markets that in turn necessitated construction of transportation thoroughfares such as roads, canals, river ways, and railroads. The nation was industrializing, modernizing, and developing a working class. Notably, increased communication among the populace with development of the electric telegraph and increases in newspaper circulation moved to politicize the masses. As a result, citizens brawling with recently arrived immigrants, intensified violence against religious dissidents, fierce clashing of opposing political interests, lynching of suspected criminals, and growing antagonisms over southern slavery accented the era (Berg, 2011; Dale, 2011).
Still, horrific white violence burdened the lives of colonial slave women and girls. Southern planters mostly relied on the brutal violence of “plantation justice” to control recalcitrant slave women and girls. One commentator notes, for instance, that when a Georgia slave girl complained to her master that another slave attempted to rape her, the planter beat the girl with his cane and then “ordered her to be stript stark naked, haul’d up to a Bean by her arms tied … and afterwards to be terribly whipped” (McNair, 2009, pp. 33-34). Milton Ready (2005) describes another horrendous case of plantation justice:
Dr. Matthew Hardy, colonial North Carolina’s ‘evil physician,’ conducted a petit feu in front of his assembled slaves and their families. In Northampton County in 1743, Hardy had Lucy, a young female slave who presumably refused his advances or who angered him by his actions, tied to a crude triangular ladder. He then made some of her friends whip her, and, in a particularly hateful act, forced her own mother to set fire to the straw gathered at her feet. After a few torturous minutes, Hardy, at gunpoint, orders another slave to drag Lucy’s entire body ‘through the fire.” He then refused supplies and aid to her. She died a few days later from her burns and injuries. Since it was not a felony to kill a slave by the Code of 1741, Hardy appeared in court, offered no explanation for his action, answered some questions concerning his ‘breach of the peace,’ and went back to his rounds as the county’s physician, treating the ailments and injuries of both freemen and slaves. (p. 80; see also Berg, 2011; Pierson, 2007)
In contrast to colonial slavery, the historical record confirms that mobsters murdered black women and girls in antebellum slavery. Citing early newspaper sources, historian David Grimsted (1998, p. 103) confirms one of the earliest recorded black female lynchings in antebellum Arkansas in 1838 when an unnamed slave woman brutally murdered her mistress. Grimsted (1998, p. 108) also reports that in Cane Hill in 1840, a mob of leading citizens including ministers hanged a mulatto slave girl who had axed her mistress to death while being brutally beaten. Female slave lynchings occurred in antebellum Missouri as well. In May 1850 in Clay County, whites hanged slave woman Annice for an attempted murder of her mistress, Mrs. Dinah Allen. It seems Annice entered Allen’s bedroom early one morning and struck Allen in the face with a large knife while Allen slept. Allen awoke to find her face bleeding profusely. Weeks after the assault, authorities surmised the plot to murder Allen and arrested Annice who confessed to a priest that she and a white man surnamed McClintock had conspired to kill Allen to steal her money and then leave the state. Apparently, McClintock had promised to marry Annice and take her to California after the murder. Once officials arrested McClintock, a group of white “farmers, mechanics, merchants, lawyers, physicians, and others” met at the local courthouse to decide the defendants’ fate. The group’s main concern was that neither Annice nor McClintock was eligible for the death penalty because the law only permitted legal executions for actual killings. It troubled the group that since Allen had survived the attack the worst punishment facing Annice was “a whipping, sale, and transportation out of the state,” and that McClintock would receive only a prison term. The group voted to lynch Annice and McClintock on the outskirts of town (Burlington Iowa State Gazette, 1850, May 29; Gettysburg Adams Sentinel, 1850, June 10).
In another antebellum Missouri incident, Callaway County whites hanged bondwoman Teney in November 1860 for bludgeoning to death Susanna Jemima Barnes, the teenage daughter of her white mistress. Teney had beaten Susanna to death with a shovel while her family attended morning church services. Teney confessed to the killing when confronted with a bloody dress found hidden in a cornfield where she had worked earlier in the day and which Teney had worn during the killing. No reports suggest why Teney bludgeoned Susanna to death though she often infuriated Teney, “a female slave of irascible and dangerous temper.” A deputy constable arrested Teney and took her to a jail in nearby Fulton, but when the deputy had the prisoner within three miles of the jail, a large mob overpowered the constable, abducted Teney, and then hanged her from a nearby tree (Manitowoc Pilot, 1860, November 16; New York Times, 1860, November 7).
In the Civil War years, Pike County townspeople in Mississippi hanged two black women. In August 1864, the proprietors (Wolf, Hiller and Company) of slave women Mary and Tena petitioned the state for compensation for the loss of their slaves after townspeople hanged the two women for plotting to murder several “helpless” white families and to destroy the property of their masters by setting fire to a store, warehouse, and several dwellings. Townspeople captured Mary and Tena as they fled to nearby Union soldiers for protection. The slave owners complained that given the virtual suspension of the courts and the insecurity of the jails, county citizens hanged the two slave women in violation of the owner’s property rights. Records of the petition give no reason for Mary and Tena conspiring to commit the offenses, though one could reasonably assume that the slave women were emboldened to lash out against their white oppressors with the Union Army closely approaching (Digital Library on American Slavery, PAR 11086402).
The decade immediately following emancipation was one of the most turbulent periods in American racial history. Faced with defeat of the Civil War, economic uncertainties, religious fundamentalism, and a collective loss of honor attributed to the former slaves, southern white society unleashed black lynchings as the “hatred, fear, loathing, and horror of Afro-Americans” attained “levels of emotional, political and religious intensity” (Patterson, 1998, p. 192). The institutional confines of slavery that seemingly sheltered black persons from extralegal violence broke down, rendering the former bond people vulnerable to white violence (Marable, 1985; Rushdy, 2012). To Friedman (1993), “Lynching was hardly necessary as an instrument of terror and domination during slavery. But after the [Civil War] lynching became a crucial extramural prop of white [male] supremacy” (p. 190). What’s more, as Bell (2004) points out, “the pecuniary value of which the individual Negro formerly represented having disappeared, the maiming and killing of them seemed to be looked upon by many as one of those venial offenses which must be forgiven to the outraged feelings of a wronged and robbed people” (p. 372, note 2). Patton (2014, February 18) specifically notes that the brutal destruction of black children’s lives through lynching violence largely occurred when black people “lost their economic value as “property” owned by white slave masters. In return for their lost economic value, black children were further devalued, unlike white children who became national symbols of innocence and worthiness.”
Race riots were among the motivations of white mobs lynching black females in Reconstruction. Violent racial confrontations between black and white persons in mass killings took place when whites attacked entire black communities. Race wars resulted from white male supremacists’ desperation “to regain their political power and restore their control over the recently emancipated African Americans” (Friedman, 1993, p. 190). One disturbing feature of the period was the vulnerability of black women and girls to white male sexual violence that was greater in the postbellum period than it had been during slavery (White, 1998).6 The sexual brutalization of black women continued with white men raping, shooting, scalping, and cutting off the ears of black women who resisted their sexual advances (Wade, 1987). White employers beat black women for “using insolent language” and for refusing to call employers “master” (Foner, 1988). Black women often witnessed white mobs whipping, flogging, beating, assaulting, castrating, and murdering their young children (Carrigan, 2004). Whites murdered nearly 300 black persons in Caddo Parish in Louisiana between 1865 and 1876; women were undoubtedly among the dead. Women were among the more than 2,000 blacks slaughtered by whites near Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1865. Whites set fire to an entire black settlement in 1866 during which they lynched more than two dozen black men, women, and children. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, other serious race riots occurred in several cities including Memphis, Meridian, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City. Southern whites regarded the lynching of black persons as lawful; they understood it as “law enforcement by informal means, a community-sanctioned extension of the criminal justice system … a legitimate, at times even gallant, defense of all that whites held sacred” (McMillen, 1989, p. 239).
There are several confirmed racial terror killings of black females during Reconstruction though the historical record is often not very instructive on the reasons for mobs lynching black women and girls. In July 1866, an Alabama mob bludgeoned to death an unnamed young black girl for an unknown reason, and in August of that year, a white mob in Texas murdered another unnamed black woman for an unspecified reason. Earlier in April 1866, a mob of white men in Washington County, Texas, murdered freed-woman Maria and two freedmen, James Mayfield and Green Taylor, one of which was Maria’s husband.7 It is unclear why the killings took place other than the broad contempt that whites held toward newly freed slaves. The victims lived with two elderly freed persons in a house on the Husier farm. Federal agents arrested four white men for the murders, but a military commission tried only two of the men—James Hall for Green Taylor’s murder and William Benton for Maria and James Mayfield’s murders. The commission ultimately acquitted both men because the two unhurt freed persons could not positively identify the murderers and knew only that they were young men of the neighborhood (Flake’s Bulletin, 1867, March 6). A similar event occurred in Tarrant County, Texas, in August 1866 when a mob of white men took an unnamed freed-woman from her house, raped, and murdered her for an unspecified reason. There is some information in the historical record concerning the racial killing of a black freed-woman named Minerva James in Hopkins County, Texas. There, according to a letter from a white farmer named Joe Easley to the Freedmen’s Bureau (1868, July 17), armed men kidnapped Minerva from Herman Spencer’s home and brutally murdered her about a mile from the house. Supposedly, Minerva was going to reveal the name of a white murderer to Union soldiers. Joe Easley wrote that if he had space to give the particulars of the killing, “you would say it was the most horrid murder you ever heard of” (McLure, 2013).
Mobsters in Louisiana frequently killed freed persons outright during the period. In late September 1868 at the Shady Grove plantation in Bossier Parish, whites murdered several freedmen and one unnamed freedwoman during a black insurrection against local landowners (Galveston Daily News, 1868, September 5; Dubuque Daily Herald, 1868, October 30; Freedmen’s Bureau Online, 1868, October). Klansmen wreaked havoc on free black persons in several counties in North Carolina by killing entire families. In January 1869, a violent and sadistic outrage occurred when Moore County Klansmen fire bombed the home of black freedman Daniel Blue and murdered his pregnant wife and four of his five children. One of the Klansmen killed another child after discovering it was still alive “by kicking its brains out with the heel of his boot.” Though Daniel and three of his daughters were able to escape the inferno through an opening in the floor, the fire trapped his wife and a young daughter both of whom burned to death. The white terrorists targeted Daniel because he was a prosecution witness in an arson case against the Moore County Klan.
The Wisconsin State Journal (1871, September 1) reported that a mob of anonymous men shot to death Matthew Deason, the white sheriff of Wilkinson County in Georgia, in early September 1871. The same mob also knifed to death an unnamed black woman employed by Deason. Afterwards, the mob dumped the two bodies in a millpond. Newspaper reports fail to explain why the mob murdered the white sheriff and his black female employee, but one can reasonably surmise that the mob acted on the notion that Deason and the woman were involved in a romantic relationship forbidden in southern society (Daniely, 2014, pp. 55-59).
Klansmen in Kentucky murdered black women whose husbands were political organizers associated with the Republican Party and engaged in registering black voters despite death threats to stop the practice. Klansmen lynched Mrs. John Simes (given name unknown) in Henry County in September 1870 because her husband was a Republican involved in registering black voters. Two years later in Fayette County, Klansmen abducted and murdered Samuel Hawkins, a black Republican voter-registration leader, along with his wife and grown daughter in early November 1872. Newspaper stories reported that armed men entered Hawkins’ house and took him, his wife, and their daughter away to the Licking River where the mob drowned the family. The Klan killed Hawkins and his family to deter other blacks from becoming involved in political affairs (Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, 1872, November 5).
Most white residents of Limestone County in central Texas strongly opposed congressional reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War that resulted in many black killings. Race-based sentiments accenting the region became so troublesome in the 1870s that the governor declared the county under martial law. It was in this strained racial environment that white men murdered Nathaniel Burges and his mother-in-law for no apparent reason (Caldwell and DeLord, 2015). Five white men shot into Nathaniel’s house killing him while his mother-in-law, Sarah Field, attempted to escape the shooting through the chimney but the murderers shot her to death when she reached the top (Austin American-Statesman, 1874, July 9; Dallas Weekly Herald, 1874, July 11).8 Similarly, Klansmen went on a bloody rampage in Shelby County, Kentucky, in late October 1874 after warning white farmers not to hire black workers. In the midst of the unrest, Klansman went to white landowner Thomas Ford’s farm where they whipped black farmhands and threatened Ford that he would receive the same unless he drove off the blacks. Afterwards, the same mob went to the house of a black farmer named Barringer and fired gunshots at the house killing his daughter with a bullet to her right eye. The young girl’s murder so outraged the state’s governor that he put out a $9,000 reward for the capture of the Klansmen. Despite the sizeable reward, “the men responsible for the raid and for the murder of the Barringer girl avoided arrest and prosecution” (Wright, 1990, pp. 31-32).
The Kentucky lynching of Mollie French in May 1876 was unusual because whites hanged Mollie and her husband Benjamin for killing another black person. Mollie was the last recorded racial outrage against a black female during Reconstruction. Gallatin County officials jailed Benjamin and Mollie for the arsenic poisoning death of an aged and respected black man named Jacob (Lake) Jones. The French’s poisoned Jones to death in an attempt to get possession of his money. While awaiting trial, a mob of white men took the French’s from the county jail and hanged them from a tree about two miles from town. One historian explains, “Whites thought fondly of ‘old’ Lake Jones, who had served faithfully, before and after emancipation, a prominent white man. He was, in the estimation of regional whites, ‘the best nigger in the county’” (Ibid, pp. 98-99). According to the Titusville Morning Herald (1876, May 5), “The French’s were regarded as bad characters, and probably no steps will be taken to discover the participants in the hanging.” Reportedly, townspeople knew Ben as a chicken thief and suspected Mollie of several poisoning murders including a past husband (St. Albans Advertiser, 1876, May 19; Cincinnati Enquirer, 1876, May 8).
Whites in the post-Reconstruction south continued to harbor a gross intolerance toward marginalized persons, and lynching proved an effective means to ensuring whites’ social, political, and economic supremacy. Jim Crow segregation took hold as an institutional means of subordinating blacks with the collapse of Reconstruction, and by 1890, southern society had fully established the legal separation of blacks from white society (Sitkoff, 1981). White mobs murdered the vast majority of black female lynching victims during Jim Crow when southern society implemented restrictive measures (black codes) marginalizing black Americans from voting rights, access to public facilities, and equal opportunities in education, employment and housing. Though Congress provided new constitutional protections to blacks with passage of the Reconstruction Amendments to the federal constitution,9 the U.S. Supreme Court was complicit in sanctioning the institutionalization of white male supremacy in the post-Reconstruction era.
Beginning with the Civil Rights Cases (1883) striking down the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions effectively dismantled the federal civil rights protections put in place during Reconstruction and ushered in a constitutionalization of white hegemony in U.S. society.10 These judicial mandates effectively replaced laissez-faire segregation and brought about the complete legal domination of black people. As a result, whites again had the full force of law behind them in their social, political, and economic dominion of black people.
The social instability of Jim Crow ushered in yet another killing period for black people. As one scholar puts it, “the history of the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow South is littered with episodes of horrific violence committed against blacks … men were castrated and women disemboweled” (Jaspin, 2007, p. 164). White violence against blacks accented rural life in small southern towns that often escalated into fierce racial wars in southern urban centers in the Carolinas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas. A wave of brutal race riots accented the Jim Crow decades when lynching was but one form of violence directed against blacks. The racial violence accenting the period “included the ethnic cleansing of entire counties and the prohibition of African American residence in certain towns (known as ‘sundown towns’ as blacks found to be present after dark would be subject to violence)” (Cook, Logan & Parman, 2014, p. 2; Jaspin, 2007). Gendered racism against black women not only exacerbated their lynching numbers, but also increased the volume of black women condemned to the southern convict lease system, chain gangs, and legal executions (Baker, 2008; Blackmon, 2008; Haley, 2016; LeFlouria, 2015).
Vigilantes often hanged black women alongside their children and other family members. In some cases, mobs lynched black women and girls in place of another suspect family member. Take the case of Mrs. Cordella Stevenson in Columbus, Mississippi, in December 1915. There, police officials took Mrs. Stevenson into custody and questioned her about her son’s involvement in the arson of a white man’s barn. Police questioned Cordella for six days about her son’s whereabouts and his involvement in the crime. Police released her after she convinced them that her son had left the area several months before the barn burning and that she did not know of his whereabouts. One commentator notes that Mrs. Stevenson “was an upstanding woman in her community and a good tenant and laborer” (Williams, 2012, p. 135). Still, a white mob abducted Mrs. Stevenson from her home after breaking down the front door and brutally raping her. The mob hanged Mrs. Stevenson’s naked body from a tree limb where officials left her hanging for several days.
The lynching of black women and girls from the end of Reconstruction to the early days of the civil rights movement accents the brutality and violence suffered by black females during Jim Crow. Mostly southern jurisdictions lynched black females for crimes of murder against white people. The killing of black women and girls was particularly heinous; white mobs lynched white females but there is no confirmation that white female lynching victims suffered the savagery inflicted on black women and girls. Because white society excluded black women “with little or no formal education and few technical skills ... from the urban industrial workplace,” many black women lynched in the period were domestic servants and housemaids whose offenses involved horrid crimes of resistance against violent white aggression (Seitz, 2005, p. 41).
Table 2 reveals that black female lynchings increased dramatically to their peak in the 1890s. Beginning in the 1900s, though, black female lynchings decreased significantly to the 1930s despite a marginal rise in their numbers in the 1910s. Scholars suggest that an overall decline in black lynchings resulted mostly from the migration of black laborers from southern farms to northern manufacturing industries—commonly known as the “Great Black Migration.” At the turn of the 20th century, most of the nine million blacks living in the United States resided in the rural South where black women were domestic workers and black men were sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and farm laborers. Some two million blacks migrated from the South in the early decades of the 20th century and took on unskilled manufacturing jobs in packinghouses and the steel industry in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. Black migrants were mostly black males; much about black female migration remains unstudied. As one researcher puts it, “there remains an egregious void concerning the experience of black women migrants” though recently some scholars have explored the lives of black girls and their girlhood in the period (Hine, 1991, p. 128; Chatelain, 2015; Lemann, 1991). Still, some scholars surmise that black female migrants had limited economic gains compared to black men in northern industries. Black women found work as cooks, waitresses, maids, ironers, labelers, stampers in mail order houses, as laborers in garment and lampshade factories, and in food processing and meat packing plants. White women’s resentment toward black female workers was also an impediment to black women’s employment opportunities, white women strenuously “objected to sharing the settings, including hospitals, schools, department stores, and offices” with black women (Hine, 1991, p. 140).
Scholars offer economic and social reasons for black Americans migrating from southern states in the period. Economic factors explaining black migration largely involved increased economic opportunities for poor southern blacks in northern industries. Researchers point out that northern employers recruited the low-cost labor of poor and illiterate southern blacks “as industries geared up to produce the armaments required for the new war [World War I] and the previously steady stream of European migrants slowed to a trickle” (Tolnay & Beck, 1992, p. 217). Social factors for black migration involved voting restrictions, educational inequality, discrimination in public places, and the inequities of a biased southern judicial system. Severe floods and boll weevil infestations added misery to black lives locked in the plantation economy of the South.
Surely, racial violence did much to push blacks out of southern states especially in those areas where white lynch mobs posed the greatest threat to blacks. Scholars explain that a reciprocal relationship existed between migration and racial violence; “not only did black migration respond to the level of racial violence, but the level of racial violence directed at blacks may have been influenced by the level of the black exodus from southern areas” (Tolnay & Beck, 1992, p. 106). Escaping the sexual violence of southern white men gave particular impetus for black women migration (Hine, 1991, 1989). The decline in black female lynchings, however, did not result from changes in improved race relations. Berg (2011) makes it clear that “white supremacists had not surrendered their goal of maintaining racial control over the black population but had merely renounced the extreme and increasingly embarrassing instrument of lynching” (p. 158). It is also clear that the legal establishment had little effect on the demise of black female lynchings in the period:
Throughout the Progressive Era, lynching remained a brutal crime that went largely uninvestigated, unprosecuted, unpunished, and undeterred by the agents of law at every level of government. State and local officials did not enforce existing law, and federal officials failed to enact any new legislation. Thus, lynchers never faced any serious deterrent from the government and could murder black people openly, notoriously, and boldly, without fear of reprisal. This failure of the state and federal governments to protect blacks from lynching is part of a larger and more persistent failure of American law to find sufficient ways to defend black life and to ensure the promise of the Reconstruction Amendments to make African Americans full citizens. (Holden-Smith, 1996, p. 39; see also Kato, 2016)
The historical record on black female lynching reveals that mobsters lynched black women and black girls during Jim Crow mostly for murder, as accomplices to murder, and felonious assaults including poisoning of white persons. Mobsters also lynched black women for murdering their employers’ young children and their own children. The burning alive of Jane Campbell in September 1881 by an integrated mob is one such occurrence. Jane Campbell, a black woman living near Dyke's Mill, Louisiana, had become angry at her two young children for disobeying her and she beat them to death—Jane had literally beaten the brains out the children with pine knots. She was a poor woman who supported herself and her children by washing and picking cotton. After a coroner’s inquest and a verdict announced, a mob dragged Jane from her cabin and roasted her alive over a fire despite her pleas for mercy (Brownstown Banner, 1881, September 29; Le Mars Daily Liberal, 1881, September 27; Burlington Daily Hawk Eye, 1881, September 18).
In another child murder case, a white mob murdered Rosa Richardson in July 1914 in Okfuskee County, South Carolina. Rosa Richardson was a mentally challenged cook and nanny for Daniel and Rhoda Bell. Daniel Bell was the father of nine and a local landowner and farmer. Rosa, a heavy-set woman and about thirty years old, lived alone in a small house on the Bell property. Authorities accused Rosa of beating to death Essie Bell, the twelve-year-old daughter of the Bells. Essie went missing after her father sent her to retrieve the family’s cow grazing in a nearby pasture. Searchers found the child’s body partially hidden beneath a log and badly beaten with her skull crushed. Attention focused on Rosa and her sister Alice who officials jailed. Once searchers learned of Rosa and Alice’s arrest, a mob battered the jailhouse door and abducted the two prisoners. Alice quickly confessed that Rosa had killed the child. The mob took Rosa to a large gum tree on the Bell’s property where she confessed to the killing. The mob hanged Rosa and riddled her body with bullets; her body remained suspended from the tree for several days. There was speculation that Rosa killed Essie for revenge. One report upholds the notion that Daniel may have killed Essie after the child learned that her father and Rosa were having sexual relations (Atlanta Constitution, 1914, July 13; Keowee Courier, 1914, July 15).
There is speculation among some lynching scholars that white mobs murdered particular black women and girls because they were members of economically successful households (Feimster, 2009). It may not have been the case, however, that four white men killed Ben Pettigrew and his two daughters because the family owned a successful cotton farm in Savannah, Tennessee. In early December 1911, while taking a load of seed cotton to a Savannah cotton gin, four white men ambushed Pettigrew, shot and killed him, and then dragged Pettigrew’s two daughters from the top of the cotton load and hanged them from a nearby tree. The white men then drove the wagon to directly below where the young girls were hanging and set it on fire, burning all three bodies. Passersby saw the blazing cotton and pursued the killers but they escaped. A posse of three hundred men quickly formed and chased after the killers. A coroner’s inquest resulted in the arrest of two white men named George Sheldon and John Bailey (brothers-in-law) for murder; the motive for the killings was the robbery of Pettigrew who was taking money to a bank while transporting his load of cotton. Sheldon and Bailey hanged in Nashville in July 1912 for the Pettigrew robbery-murder (Reynolds Journal, 1912, July 31; The Gazette, 1912, July 31; Espy & Smykla, 2004).
Several lynchings of black women and girls were revenge killings when white mobs retaliated against black women for transgressions committed by another family member. In March 1900, for instance, a mob lynched a black man (name unknown) for the shooting death a prominent merchant in Letohatchee, Alabama, named Sam Howell. James Crosby, the most outspoken about his friend’s lynching, fearlessly declared he would seek revenge. More than a thousand blacks were outraged over the lynching. In response to Crosby’s outspokenness about the lynching, whites went to his house at midnight in early March and riddled his house with buckshot killing Crosby. Stepping over Crosby’s dead body, the mob dragged Mrs. Cosby and her young daughter and son from their beds and shot them to death (Cynthiana Argus, 1900, March 10; New Castle News, 1900, March 7; Atlanta Constitution, 1900, March 4).
A few years earlier, in November 1893, near Barnstown, Kentucky, authorities arrested and jailed Phil Evans for the rape of a twelve-year-old white girl named Edna Hall, the daughter of Edward Hall. Evans denied the charge and testified that he was at home on the night of Edna Hall’s assault. It seems Phil Evans and Edward Hall had been drinking when Evans agreed to take Hall home but instead put him in a straw pile where he fell asleep. Evans then went to Hall’s house and tried to break in after Hall’s wife refused him admittance to the house. Hall’s daughter ran from the house when Evans caught her, took her to an outhouse, and raped the child. Evan’s trial so instigated confrontations among white and black residents that officials called in the state militia to calm the agitations. After an all-white jury convicted Evans of raping Hall, a mob tried to take Evans from the jail to lynch him but the county sheriff and military guards had already taken Evans to Louisville. During Evan’s trial, a mob used dynamite to blow up Evan’s home killing his mother, his wife, and his “little girl” (given names unknown). One report states, however, that the morning after the bombing of Evan’s house his wife had gone to town and made statements to a newspaper concerning the mob’s motive behind the bombing. Most other newspapers at the time reported that Evan’s family had died in the bombing. Consequently, the historical record is unclear whether Evan’s family actually died in the explosion or had escaped unscathed and ran from the area. In any event, the twenty-one-year-old Phil Evans hanged at the gallows in January 1894 where he admitted to raping Edna Hall (Connersville Daily Examiner, 1893, November 13; Marion Daily Star, 1893, November 13).
Property crimes including arson, theft, and robbery were another reason for white mobs lynching black women and girls. In a theft case in early December 1895, a mob of six white men, and a lone black man in Colleton County, South Carolina, abducted and murdered a young black man named Isom Kearse for stealing a Bible and some pulpit furniture from St. Nichol’s Church in Barnwell County. Isom had a reputation as a thief who townspeople also suspected of burning a store some time earlier. The mob took Isom from his house, put a rope around his neck, tied him to the back of a buggy, and then dragged him for two miles to a swamp. Members of the mob also abducted Isom’s mother, Hannah Kearse (Walker), more commonly known as “Old Mamma Hannah,” and Isom’s seventeen-year-old wife, Rosa Kearse, the mother of a five-month-old baby. The mob questioned the three about the stolen church property but they denied having any knowledge of the theft. The mob then stripped the three naked and beat them severely with a buggy trace. Isom received some one hundred fifty lashes but Hannah and Isom’s wife broke away and ran into nearby woods during the beating. While Isom’s wife was able to make her way back home, authorities found Isom’s body where the mob had left him and Hannah’s body lying in a pool of water some one hundred yards away. Judge James Aldrich held an inquest “composed entirely of good white men from the neighborhood” and after two trials, juries acquitted the men involved in the Isom killings (Jeffersonville News, 1896, February 26; Atlanta Constitution, 1896, February 21; Atlanta Constitution, 1896, February 24).
Hostile race relations in the Jim Crow south also manifested into race riots, feuds with whites, racial cleansing, or giving testimony against white persons were reasons for black female lynchings. Unadulterated “racial hatred” is the reason sources give for a white mob killing of sixty-year-old Rosemond Cormier, a physician, and his fifteen-year-old daughter Rosalie Cormier in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1889. Thirty masked men rode up to Cormier’s small cabin and demanded entry, but when Cormier refused, they broke down the door. Cormier then fired both barrels of a shotgun into the crowd, killing one white man (John Judice) and seriously injuring several others. Cormier and his daughter ran but the mob soon captured them and blew the entire back part of Cormier’s head off and then shattered the front of his head with a rifle. The men cut Rosalie’s throat from ear to ear, nearly decapitating the young girl. Authorities arrested two men for the murders including a deputy sheriff. It seems that two months earlier, regulators had whipped Cormier and ordered him to leave the county, but he refused. One newspaper reported that “the residents of Lafayette and the Courts of Louisiana seem content to allow [this atrocity] to pass into history unavenged” (Lincoln Weekly Nebraska State Journal, 1889, September 13; Elkhart Daily Review, 1889, September 14; Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 1889, September 11).
Many other black women died at the hands of mobsters for resisting sexual assaults, miscegenation, writing a letter to a white woman on behalf of impertinence and scolding white children. Charlotte Morris and her husband, Patrick Morris, a white railroad worker, underwent tortuous treatment from a mob of whites in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for their interracial marriage. Whites had torn down their house and threw the debris into a river bordering New Orleans. They later bought a houseboat and whites whipped them after they refused to move. Whites threatened them with death, but still they refused to leave. To some sources, the houseboat soon became “a vile resort for low Negro women” and “such a scandal that the people decided to tolerate them no longer” (The World, 1896, January 13). In January 1896, a mob of twenty assembled and set fire to the houseboat. The mob shot Pat Morris in the leg while he attempted to put out the fire and burned to death. The mob shot Charlotte Morris in the head and she too burned in the fire. One source claims that before setting the house on fire, the mob “placed them on their bed and used axes to hack their bodies to pieces” (Tolnay & Beck, 1995, pp. 77-78). The couple’s eleven-year-old son, Patrick, Jr., escaped by swimming across the river and told authorities that he recognized a police officer named Jerome and a saloon-keeper named Gasenberg as the men who started the fire, and that a judge of the parish was at the fire (Janesville Daily Gazette, 1896, January 13).
A white mob in Jefferson County, Alabama, lynched an older black woman named Elizabeth Lawrence in July 1933 apparently for verbally reprimanding a group of white children who threw rocks at her as she walked down a road. After learning of Elizabeth’s scolding of the children, a white mob murdered Elizabeth and burned down her home. Elizabeth’s son, Alexander, filed a police report once he learned of his mother’s murder; he had been out of town during the lynching. Alexander escaped to Boston to avoid a lynching himself for contacting police (Equal Justice Initiative, n.d.).
In late July 1946 in Walton County, Georgia, a mob of unmasked white men ambushed and shot to death Roger Malcolm, Dorothy Malcolm George Dorsey, and Mae Murray Dorsey— all in their twenties. The mob used rifles, shotguns, pistols, and a machine gun to murder the victims. The killings took place after Roger Malcolm’s arrest and subsequent release on a $600 bond for stabbing Barnette Hester, a planter for whom the Malcolm’s were sharecroppers. The stabbing resulted from an argument between Roger and Hester about Roger’s mistreatment of his wife Dorothy; Hester and Dorothy may have been having an extramarital affair. The mob intercepted the car of a prosperous planter named Loy Harrison who was taking the four back to his farm after posting Roger’s bail. The mob dragged the four victims from Harrison’s car, tied them to trees, beat them savagely, and then shot them to death ripping their bodies to shreds with the gunfire. One among the mob used a knife to cut Dorothy’s unborn baby from her body; Dorothy was seven months pregnant. Authorities found the bodies near the Moore’s Ford Bridge spanning the Appalachia River. A coroner’s inquest ruled that the four died at the hands of parties unknown. The murders drew national attention and the condemnation of President Harry Truman who sent the FBI to investigate but who met a wall of silence. The FBI suspected that Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, one of the state’s most virulent racist governors, may have “sanctioned the murders to sway rural white votes during a tough election campaign.” The FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently reopened the case and offered a reward for information about the lynchers, some of whom may still be living (Wexler, 2004; Newton, 2016; Gastonia Daily Gazette, 1946, July 29; Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2002, April 28; Monroe Morning World, 1946, July 28).
Another case took place on Christmas Day in 1951 in Mims, Florida, when Klansmen active in the state bombed the Moore home, instantly killing Harry Tyson Moore and seriously injuring his wife Harriette Vyda Simms Moore who died eight days later. Harry was an activist who had a long career of vigorously fighting racial discrimination against blacks in Florida. He founded the Brevard County chapter of the NAACP in 1934, and in March 1938 filed the first lawsuit in the Deep South to bring parity pay to black public school teachers who earned half the salaries of white teachers. Harry was active in organizing black voters, and in 1944, he investigated the lynching of fifteen-year-old Willie James Howard who had sent a Christmas card to the daughter of a white, former state legislator. A federal grand jury in Miami handed down indictments in 1953 against seven Klansmen after an initial investigation into the Moore’s deaths in 1951 and 1952, but officials never made any arrests in the case. State prosecutors reopened the case in 1978 and again in 1991, but closed the case in 1992 for lack of evidence.
More recently, though 55 years later, investigators with the Florida Attorney General’s Office implicated four white Klan members in the killing Harry and Harriette Moore—Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. Bevlin, Joseph N. Cox, and Edward L. Spivey. All but Spivey died within a year of the bombing, Cox committed suicide after an FBI interview about the case, and the other two died of natural causes. Before dying of cancer in 1980, Spivey gave several confessions to investigators about the bombing. The investigation has brought some sense of closure to the Moore’s daughter, Evangeline Moore, though the Florida Attorney General’s Office closed the murder case of Harry and Harriette Moore in July 2011 (Freedom Never Dies; Reed, 2006, August 17).
On April 25, 1953, Sheriff Jenkins beat to death a paralyzed sixty-three-year-old woman named Della McDuffie during a nighttime raid of a café operated by Della and her husband Willie. On that night in Alberta, Alabama, Sheriff Jenkins led a raid of the café wielding a black weapon resembling a rubber hose and swung it left and right at the patrons, hitting a number of them. In the midst of the mêlée, he shot his gun into the floor and ceiling and patrons scrambled to get out of the café. Della, however, could not get out of her wheelchair and Sheriff Jenkins repeatedly struck her with the hose. Willie summoned a physician to treat Della but she succumbed to her injuries shortly after the physician’s arrival at the café. Apparently, the physician falsely stated on Della’s death certificate that she died a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a preceding condition of arteriosclerosis. No authority ever conducted an autopsy of Della’s body. Willie sought assistance from the head of the Mobile, Alabama, branch of the NAACP. He and many others supplied affidavits about what happened in the café. The Mobile NAACP branch contacted Thurgood Marshall who persuaded the Justice Department to open an investigation in July 1953 and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate Della’s killing. In September 1953, the Department informed Thurgood Marshall that it would take no action in the matter. A year after Della’s death, officials found Willie dead under suspicious circumstances and no officials ever conducted an investigation into his death (Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, 2013 May).
American society was a violent place for black people during the early civil rights period (Daniels, 2005, August 22). Unquestionably, whites invoked a horrific toll against black Americans in the struggle for civil rights with sadistic beatings and the outright murder of hundreds of civil rights activists. Still looming in our collective memory is the white violence precipitated against black people engaged in nonviolent protests for social, political, and economic equality. A generation ago, the country watched televised broadcasts of nightstick-wielding Alabama state police and mounted sheriff deputies brutally beating hundreds of peaceful civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Tampa Tribune, 2004, March 7). The marchers had just made the fifty-four-mile trek from Montgomery protesting Jim Crow policies prohibiting black voting rights and the police shooting of young Jimmy Lee Jackson who died while trying to prevent troopers from beating his mother during a black voter registration march weeks earlier (Perkins, 2002, May 29). Also are the images of whites humiliating and taunting blacks at lunch counter sit-ins, black students escorted to college classrooms by national guardsmen, and white terrorist attacks against freedom riders. The civil rights movement saw the Montgomery bus boycott protesting segregation in the aftermath of Rosa Parks’ refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Moreover, who can forget the angry white mobs attacking school buses carrying black children in northern cities to newly desegregated white schools years later (Rimer, 1995, September 25; see also Bennett, 1992, December 28; Daniels, 1983, April 17). Whites terrorized the black community by burning crosses on black family’s front lawns, burning churches, attacking blacks in public places, attacking black students, throwing nooses around black teenagers’ necks, shouting racial slurs, random killings of black men and women, holding a knife to young black girls’ throats, and targeting and killing black children (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 2004). What’s more, countless black women disappeared from communities throughout the South during the period. Whites meant these acts of racial terror in the civil rights era to warn blacks to “keep their place” in southern society.
White mobs murdered at least sixteen black women and young black girls during the civil rights period. Many of these cases remain unresolved by federal and state law enforcement. One of the earliest racial terror killings involved a black woman in late March 1956, in Hyde County, North Carolina, when Thurman Evans discovered the body of Angenora Spencer, estranged wife of Otis Spencer, on the side of a road while in route to making a delivery. Evans alerted the local sheriff who found Angenora partially clothed with her legs bound to her head by a skirt. She died the next morning at a local hospital. She had suffered a blow over her left ear. Newspaper reports on the killing explain that whites most likely killed Angenora for miscegenation (Washington Daily News, 1956, March 25; Belhaven Pilot, 1956, March 29).
In East Flat Rock, North Carolina, in November 1957, the State Bureau of Investigation could not explain the killing of Frank Clay and his wife. A passerby found Frank Clay’s body in the backyard of the Clay’s home and police later discovered Mrs. Clay slumped against a bedroom wall in the home. A coroner’s report revealed that Mrs. Clay died from a shotgun blast to the side and that Frank died from a stab wound in the groin. Sheriff Deputies found a twelve-gauge shotgun in the blood-filled kitchen of the home, but they did not find a knife. Prior to their killings, the Clays had received a series of telephone death threats from callers claiming to represent the Klan. Neighbors found a cross smoldering in the Clay’s front yard on the day of the murders (Burlington Daily Times News, 1957, November 20; Gastonia Gazette, 1957, November 20; Dailey, Gilmore & Simon, 2000; Tyson, 2004).
The Klan was active in and around Ringgold, Georgia, in 1960 when Mattie Green, the mother of six children and a domestic worker for a retired railroad worker, suffered fatal injuries from a bomb blast of her home in May of that year. Investigators suspected that Klansmen had put a homemade bomb under Mattie’s bedroom in attempt to kill her husband, Jethro Green, because of his association with the NAACP. In March 2009, the FBI reopened the murder case of Mattie Green as a civil rights investigation. In that investigation, an unnamed black woman reportedly told investigators of a conversation she had with Sheriff J. D. Stewart years after the bombing. In that discussion, the unnamed woman stated that Sheriff Stewart told her that “a white male named Lester Waters had confessed to the bombing and that the guilt had driven him crazy.” Sheriff Stewart took Lester Waters to a mental facility in Milledgeville, Georgia. The investigation also revealed that Lester Waters was a Klan member and a friend of Sheriff Stewart. There is no confirmation that Stewart was a Klan member, but according to researchers, “At the very least, the friendship between Lester Waters and Sheriff J.D. Stewart poses the obvious question about equal protection for blacks in a system where law enforcement openly fraternized with known active Klan members.” The FBI finally closed the case for lack of evidence in May 2012 (Appleton Post Crescent, 1960, May 19; Catherwood & Richardson, 2011, March 19; Newton, 2016).
One of the more appalling displays of racial violence took place in September 1963 when the Eastview Klavern chapter of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by planting dynamite under the church steps the night before Sunday services. The blast killed four young black girls—ten-year-old Addie Mae Collins, eleven-year-old Denise McNairm, and fourteen-year-old Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley—and injured twenty-two other adults and children. The church had been the center of civil rights activities in Birmingham; the Klan ordered the bombing to protest federal court mandates to desegregate the city’s public schools. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was the twenty-first such bombing in Birmingham in eight years and the third in eleven days. One reason for the large number of church, home, and business bombings in Birmingham was that at least a third of the city’s police department was Klansmen. With the help of informants, the FBI quickly identified Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton as the racist bombers. The FBI, however, blocked and eventually stopped the investigation of the four murders principally because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s fanatical opposition to the civil rights movements. “It has now become clear that the FBI not only impeded the arrest and prosecution of the four suspected men, but for years withheld incriminating evidence from state prosecutors that would have provided overwhelming evidence of their guilt” (White, 2001, May 20).
Alabama prosecutors tried Robert Chambliss for the murders but won only a conviction on possessing dynamite; he paid a fine and spent a short time in jail. In 1971, Alabama prosecutors reopened the case and a state court convicted Chambliss in 1977 for his part in the bombing and sentenced him to prison where he died in 1985. Herman Cash died in 1994. Investigators reexamined the case again in 1980 and 1988 but made no arrests. In response to community pressure, the FBI reopened the case a third time in 1995 and indicted Thomas Blanton and accomplice Bobby Frank Cherry in 2000 using evidence not available to state prosecutors in the original case. A jury convicted Blanton of first-degree murder who is presently serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole at a state correctional facility. An Alabama court declared Cherry incompetent to stand trial, but in January 2002, a circuit court judge reversed the order that held Cherry incompetent. In May 2002, an Alabama jury convicted Cherry for his role in the killings. Cherry died in prison in 2004 (Washington Post, 2002, May 24; Randall, 2000, May 5). In May 2013, nearly fifty years after the 1963 attack in Birmingham, President Obama signed legislation to posthumously award the four young girls the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian. The President signed the legislation before relatives of the young girls (Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Monthly Bulletin, 2013, May).
One unresolved racial killing of a black female during the civil rights period in Florida is that of Johnnie Mae Chappell. One evening in March 1964 in Jacksonville, four young white men senselessly killed Johnnie Mae, a mother of ten who had just finished her grocery shopping at Banner Food Market after a thirty-mile bus ride from her job as a domestic worker for a white family. Once Johnnie Mae arrived home, she discovered she had lost her pocketbook and went to search for it by retracing her steps down New King’s Road to the market. Albert Smith and Tildia Sanders were two neighbors that accompanied Johnnie Mae in search of her wallet. At the time, racial violence had erupted in downtown Jacksonville and the white men angered by the racial troubles resolved “to find themselves a nigger to shoot.” Wayne Chessman, Elmer Kato, James Alex Davis, and J.W. Rich drove a dark colored sedan down the road from which Rich fired a twenty-two-caliber rifle at Johnnie Mae hitting her in the abdomen. An ambulance service took Johnnie Mae to a local segregated hospital where she later died from the gunshot wound (Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 1964, March 24; Manitowoc Herald Times, 1964, March 24). Jacksonville police detectives investigated the murder after Chessman had approached them at a local diner twice over the next few weeks following Johnnie Mae’s killing. At one of the encounters, detectives found Chessman’s behavior strange and invited him to the police station where the suspect quickly broke down and confessed to his role in Johnnie Mae’s murder. He named his accomplices who confessed to police as well. Authorities indicted all four men for first-degree murder. After a two-day trial, an all-white male jury convicted Rich of manslaughter and the court sentenced him to ten-years in the state penitentiary. Officials dropped all charges against the other three defendants though the men had confessed to their involvement in the crime. In April 2004, Governor Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to reopen the Johnnie Mae Chappell case in hopes of having first-degree murder charges reinstated on the three unindicted murder suspects. These men are now in their late sixties and still live in Jacksonville. Johnnie Mae Chappell’s lynching remains an open investigation (Hastings, 2003, December 1; Murphy, 2005, September 7; Smith, 2000, April 5).
Officials know little of the murderous outrage committed against seventy-six-year-old Selma Kelly Trigg in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in January 1965. One historian explains that the racist killing of Selma took place in the aftermath of four days of U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearings wherein public officials were “called to account for their abuse and obstruction of would-be black voters.” Selma mysteriously burned to death in a house fire of unknown origin while trapped in her bedroom. The Department of Justice closed the case in May 2010 for lack of evidence that a crime actually occurred and ruled Selma’s death accidental. Though the historical record reveals no known reason for Selma’s killing, one can logically assume her death resulted from white terrorists lashing out against her as a black voter even if the FBI ruled the murder unsubstantiated (Hattiesburg American, 1965, January 22; Newton, 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d.).
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the police killing of fourteen-year-old Lillie Dell Powers (also reported as Lillie Bell Powers) as a civil rights murder. In 1965, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organizing voter drives in and around Starkville. One report explains, “The Starkville Community was very active in the campaign, collecting money for the vote drive at businesses in the black community and holding rallies at three churches in the areas, among other tactics.” It was during these events that Starkville Police Officers Leonard Green and Huland White shot and killed Lillie as she rode in a car with several other youths. Newspaper stories show that police had chased the car and when outside the city limits shot at the car killing Lillie. Police claim that they attempted to stop the car for a traffic violation and gave chase after the driver of the car tried to run over one of the officers involved in the traffic stop. The teenage passengers in the car claimed that the police simply started following them for no apparent reason and then shot through the window hitting Lillie who later died at University Memorial Hospital in Jackson. Sources reveal that there was no significant police investigation of the shooting (Charleston Gazette, 1965, December 1; Hattiesburg American, 1965, November 30; Newton, 2010, 2016).
A known tactic of the Klan in the civil rights decades was to devise automobile crashes to make the killing of active civil rights workers appear as unfortunate accidents. In January 1966, Adlena Hamlett and Birdia Beatrice Clark Keglar died in a car crash on a road near the town Sidon in western Mississippi. Adlena was a seventy-eight-year-old retired schoolteacher who worked to register black voters in Tallahatchie County, and Birdia was a fifty-seven-year-old organizer for the NAACP in registering black voters at the time of their deaths. Many suspected that the Klan devised the car wreck to kill the two women who white supremacists had threatened, shot at, and burned in effigy for registering black voters. Both women had testified before a congressional commission in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 revealing the abuses they suffered for their involvement in voting rights. At the time of the accident, Adlena and Birdia were returning home from a secreted meeting in Jackson with Robert F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator. There are conflicting reports on how the women died. The FBI claimed, “The impact caused the hood of the car to break loose and move through the windshield, fatally injuring Hamlett and Keglar.” Grafton Gray, the driver of the car in which Adlena and Birdia were riding, reported that she played dead after the accident, and could hear Klansmen torturing the two women. Klansmen had taken the women to the edge of the woods where they killed and mutilated the women “in the style of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi.” Reportedly, Birdia’s body was found decapitated and Adlena’s arms cleanly severed. The Department of Justice closed both cases in May 2011 (Mohr, 2011, November 5; Newton, 2016).
In September 1968 in Martinsville, Indiana, Klan member Kenneth C. Richmond stabbed twenty-one-year-old Carol Jenkins to death on her first day of selling encyclopedias door-to-door; Carol had been idled by a plant strike at her regular job at the Philco Division of Ford Motor Company. Police did not suspect Carol’s death was a racially motivated killing and despite a reward put forward by Collier’s Encyclopedia for information on the case, the case went unsolved for more than 30 years (Anderson Sunday Herald, 1968, September 22). In May 2002, however, Richmond’s daughter, Shirley Richmond McQueen, identified her father as the killer. Police had received an anonymous letter indicating that McQueen had information on Carol’s death. According to McQueen, when her father and another man saw Carol walking alongside a road, they started yelling at her and stopped the car in which they were riding with seven-year-old McQueen. It was then that her father grabbed a screwdriver from the seat and got out of the car with the other man. The two men chased Carol, the other man grabbed her, and Richmond stabbed Carol in the chest with the screwdriver. Police confirmed McQueen’s story “when she remembered a key detail – that Carol was wearing a yellow scarf.” McQueen stated that her father had “a pronounced dislike for black people” and claimed at the time that Carol “got what she deserved.” A review of court documents by an investigative reporter found a jury had acquitted Richmond of murder in 1985, and accused in 1987 of attempted murder but found not guilty due to insanity in Florida. Suffering from mental health and alcohol problems, Richmond was fixated on castrating himself and eventually succeeded. After his arrest in 2002 for Carol’s murder, a court declared Richmond incompetent to stand trial. He died of bladder cancer in August of that year (Delaware County Daily Times, 1968, December 19; Penner, 2002, May 9; Salina Journal, 2002, May 9).
San Antonio Police used fingerprints to identify Gwendolyn Anne Glover, a twenty-eight-year-old mother of three young children, found by city utility workers behind an electric substation near the Joe Freeman Coliseum in early April 1969. Also known as Ann Thomas, Gwendolyn’s attackers sexually assaulted her and pulled her slacks down around her ankles; she had suffered six bullet wounds to the head from a twenty-two-caliber gun. Robbery was not the motive for her murder since police found her wearing a diamond ring and discovered a five-dollar bill and sunglasses near Gwendolyn’s body. A coroner’s report revealed that unknown assailants killed her on Easter Sunday. Gwendolyn’s murder remained a cold case under investigation until April 2010 when federal law enforcement officials closed the case (San Antonio Express, 1969, April 10; Newton, 2016).
In July 1969, white vigilantes killed Lillie Belle Allen with a “high powered rifle” blast to the chest, “so powerful that it blew her out of her sneakers.” Lillie had mistakenly turned into a white neighborhood during ten days of violent race riots in York, Pennsylvania, when a group of about a dozen young men fired more than a hundred rounds at her Cadillac; the shooting stopped only after a police armored vehicle pulled up alongside Lillie’s car. Lillie had been in York from South Carolina visiting relatives at the time of her murder. In part, the shooting resulted from a police officer at the time and later mayor, Charles Robertson, telling gang members (the Newberry Street Boys) while passing out bullets to “kill as many niggers as you can” (Bunch, 2001, September 2). The case lay dormant for more than three decades until a series of articles appeared in local papers. In October 2002, state prosecutors won a second-degree murder verdict against two white men named Gregory H. Neff and Robert N. Messersmith. Seven other men pled guilty to lesser charges and a jury acquitted Charles Robertson. Lillie’s family won a civil suit against York and its police officers in 2005 (Lueck, 2002, October 20).
There have been some attempts by American law enforcement to atone for the murders of black people killed during the civil rights struggle. In February 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) contacted local and state authorities, civic organizations, and community leaders throughout the country for information on civil rights era racially motivated murders that authorities at the time had not adequately investigated or prosecuted. The “Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative” identified 108 unsolved cases. A year later, the FBI and DOJ collaborated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League to help investigate the unsolved murders. In November 2009, the Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative made a public appeal to the families of victims in thirty-four cases to inform them of the facts surrounding the victims and to obtain new information on the cases. Meanwhile, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2008 (PUBLIC LAW 110–344) authorizing funding for the investigation and prosecution of unresolved civil rights era cases. The act requires the U.S. Attorney General to prepare and submit to Congress an annual report on open investigations on violations of criminal civil rights statutes before 1970. In its latest report to Congress, the Justice Department identified 126 cases of persons murdered during the civil rights era. Of these cases, eleven are black women murdered in southern states; three of the cases remain open (Attorney General’s Fifth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, 2014, January).11
Not all commentators trust that the national government has done all it can to resolve civil rights murders. Critics point out that although the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act authorized some $13.5 million a year to fund investigations of racially motivated murders before 1970, Congress has allocated nothing near these requisite funds to federal law enforcement. Congress allocated no funds for investigations in 2009, and in 2010, it authorized $2 million to the Justice Department and another $8 million to the civil rights division of the FBI for investigating not only civil rights cold cases but also human trafficking, hate crimes, and contemporary civil rights violations (Dewan, 2010, August 23). What’s more, though state and federal prosecutors have successfully prosecuted some civil rights cold cases, it is investigative reporters and cold case justice projects initiated by law professors who have done much of the work resulting in prosecutions (Klibanoff, 2010, August 8; McDonald, 2008; Labuda, 2011). As one scholar puts it, “[t]he onus is on the governmental institutions to remedy and explain their respective roles in failing to apply the full force of the law to seek justice for these horrendous crimes against individuals, communities and the integrity of applicable laws” (McDonald, 2008, p. 798).
The United States is a society of intergroup domination and subordination wherein social control of subordinate groups with repressive institutional strategies is essential to maintaining the status quo of such a system. Scholars suggest that black female lynchings not only reinforced a legacy of gender and racial inequality, but that the structured inequality of gendered racism suffered by black females historically is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. That is, black female oppression as an artifact of the gendered racism accounting for black female lynchings remains a notable feature of today’s society (Baker, 2016). Indeed, white males use the justice system as an apparatus to control and subordinate black females to the social, political, and economic interests of white men. In this regard, the justice literature is clear that black women suffer excessively from incarceration rates, a racially biased capital justice system, criminal sentencing, and abuse by law enforcement (The Sentencing Project, 2018). Black females are excessively poor with low-incomes and minor children, high rates of serious mental illnesses, and long histories of substance abuse, sexual victimization, and domestic violence. Disparate contact of black women with the criminal justice system results from more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry. These phenomena are artifacts of the continued subjugation of black women and girls in the American class structure vis-à-vis the discrimination and segregation experienced by black women in the patriarchal system resulting in lower levels educational attainment, lower placement in the occupational structure with low incomes and high rates of poverty (see also Alexander, 2010; Bailey & Tolnay, 2015; Sudbury, 2005).
Criminal justice scholars have largely overlooked the violence-plagued history of American black female lynchings. This paper brings into sharper focus the cruel atrocities wrought upon marginalized black women and girls by hate-mongering mobs of mostly white men bent on controlling black women with brutality and violence. The historical record on black female lynchings depicted in newspaper stories and the academic lynching literature confirm that white men used deadly violence to reinforce the white patriarchy of American society. Construction of a viable inventory of black female lynchings is necessary to constructing an historical and contextual analysis of mob violence against black women. An inventory ridden with factual errors skews the practical reality about vigilante violence and black women and girls. This paper goes far to correct for inadequacies in the historical record on black female lynchings. Still, an inventory of black female victims of lynching amounts to not more than a looking glass through which researchers can peer in hopes of gaining some meaningful insight and understanding into the horrors of black women and girl’s lynchings. Indeed, white men used ferocious methods to murder black women and girls, including hanging, strangling, shooting and stabbing, burning alive, sadistically mutilating their bodies before and after death, drowning, and killing them and black girls in dynamite explosions of their homes and churches. Black women often died with their babies in their arms and alongside their husbands and older children. The deranged rationales for mob violence against black women enforced distorted racist and sexist constructions in American society wherein many black women and girls died because of the perverse paternalistic notions of black women and girl’s place in American society. Regrettably, black females continue to experience gendered racism in United States society.
Table 1. Registry of confirmed black female lynchings in the United States, 1838-1969
Table 2. Characteristics of confirmed black female lynchings in the United States by Region, 1838 to 1969.
Middle Atlantic States
– New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania;
East North Central States
– Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin;
West North Central States
– Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas;
South Atlantic States
– Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida;
East South Central States
– Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi;
West South Central States
– Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas;
– Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada;
– Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington.
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David V. Baker is an associate professor emeritus of sociology and justice studies at Riverside City College in Riverside, California. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Riverside and a Juris doctorate from California Southern Law School. Professor Baker has held visiting lectureships at the University of California at Riverside, Chapman University, California State University at Fullerton and San Bernardino, Central Piedmont College, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His research and teaching interests are in race and ethnic relations with an emphasis on exploring systemic racism in the United States criminal justice system. He has contributed works to several professional journals and law reviews and has coauthored several books. Dr. Baker is also the author of Women and Capital Punishment in the United States: An Analytical History and Deputy Editor of Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society
Gilbert Garcia is a lecturer in sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, and an adjunct member of the faculty at Riverside City College in Riverside, California. He holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of California at Riverside, and is on the board of the Social Science Research Instructional Council for the California State University System. His research and teaching interests are in race and ethnic relations with an emphasis on exploring systemic racism in the United States justice system. Mr. Garcia also explores the connection of media and technology as socializing forces in personal development.