Six years after her death in 2005, Rosa Parks made national news when an essay she penned in the 1950s about a “near rape” by a white man in Alabama was released to the public for the first time. The six-page handwritten essay detailed Parks’s steely resistance to a white neighbor, “Mr. Charlie,” who attempted to assault her in 1931 while she was babysitting.”I was ready to die,” she wrote, “but give my consent never. Never, never.”
We may never know if Rosa Parks meant the essay as autobiographical or metaphorical, as a story to be kept locked away or told in front of a crowd, but a first-person account of sexualized violence from a young working-class black woman is very rare and that alone marks it as important.
These stories are often not visible in the archive, but fragments of this history can sometimes be found in court documents, in clubwomen’s speeches and letters, in the pages of African American newspapers and in the oral tradition where grandmothers told their daughters; aunts told their nieces; and friends warned each other about the dangers that awaited them in white spaces.
Still, we have a very incomplete record of the kind of daily terrors and indignities black women and girls faced in the Jim Crow South and how they resisted (if they could) and recovered from (if and when they did) the trauma of racialized sexual brutality. Their invisibility in the archive speaks to their historic powerlessness and disfranchisement as citizens in the segregated South.
However, it is from those fragments and those testimonies that we can craft a new history of empowerment and active citizenship, of black women’s agency and leadership. At the very least, we can better understand the history we think we know.