For Whose Protection? African American Women and Gender Violence in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000, and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 2:15 PM - 2:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Crime and Violence; Gender and Sexuality


Historians have documented a robust tradition of African American women publicly testifying about their bodily violation that stretches from slave narratives like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) to the contemporary #MeToo movement spearheaded by Tarana Burke. This tradition developed in response to the state’s persistent refusal to acknowledge and redress violence against black women. Sexual protection codified by law covered only a narrow subset of white women. The shifting political terrain of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries further complicated black women’s fight to be free of violence. As Reconstruction crumbled into Jim Crow, Jim Crow succumbed to the Black Freedom Struggle, and the Black Freedom Struggle faded into the Post-Civil Rights Era, state actors constantly devised new means of punishing and controlling black bodies. As scholar Kali Gross has noted, the state has wielded a “politics of protection” that excludes black women from protection while subjecting them to its punishments. This panel examines the diverse methods and theories deployed by African American women to protect themselves from violence from the dawn of emancipation to the carceral state build-up of the late twentieth century. It addresses the full spectrum of gender violence, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and sexual abuse. At each juncture, panelists will consider the following: How did African American women navigate a state that was more interested in harming them than shielding them from harm? How did they understand their bodies, sexuality, and womanhood in relation to crime, the law, and the state? How did their class status inform their relationship to these categories and the strategies they developed? How did they modify these strategies over time in light of new political developments? In addition to spanning over a century of African American women’s history, this panel unites scholars at various stages of their professional careers. Charlene J. Fletcher attends to black women trapped within abusive marriages in Eastern Kentucky during the Gilded Age who were unable to fully act upon their freedom from slavery. Their homes, far from the nurturing domestic ideal, became spaces of confinement for them. Kaisha Esty turns to the late nineteenth century South, where working class black women defended themselves from sexual harassment through the rhetoric of purity and sexual sovereignty. This was a necessary corollary to the weak legal framework of sexual protection established during Reconstruction. Denise Lynn focuses on Civil Rights Congress’ support for Rosa Lee Ingram, a sharecropper imprisoned for killing her white abuser in self-defense in 1947. Their campaign led them to frame gender violence as a plank of black genocide. The panel concludes in the 1980s and 1990s, with Caitlin Wiesner examining the National Black Women’s Health Project’s campaign against rape and battering. Their opposition to the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 reflected black women’s mistrust of law enforcement measures that were supposed to shield them from gender violence. Cheryl Hicks, a renowned expert on African American women’s experience of sexual danger and incarceration, will serve as chair.

Papers Presented

Home Ain’t Always Where the Heart Is: Women, Confinement, and Domestic Violence in the Gilded Age

Each May, horse racing fans gather in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. The festivities are dotted with mint juleps, fancy hats, and rousing renditions of Stephen Foster’s 1852 ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.” For many Derby goers, Foster, a Pennsylvania native, conjured visions of a nurturing, humble environment—a place to call home — however, for some Kentuckians, home was anything but nurturing. For many Black women, the “home” served as a site of enslavement and, even after emancipation, a site with a distinct restrictive force: domestic violence. This paper argues while the home was perceived as a nurturing space during the Victorian Era, it also served as a site of confinement for women and children in central Kentucky; a site plagued with various forms of domestic abuse. It examines violence against women during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era by recounting the stories of two African-American women and Lexington, Kentucky residents: Fannie Keys Harvey and Lila B. White and explores the ways Black women negotiated the confinement and trauma of domestic violence at the turn of the twentieth century when women’s rights, Black women’s suffrage, and respectability politics were at the forefront of social reform agendas.

Presented By
Charlene Jennifer Fletcher, Brown University

Gender Violence as Genocide: The Rosa Lee Ingram Case and We Charge Genocide Petition

On November 4, 1947, widowed sharecropper Rosa Lee Ingram was nearly assaulted by a white sharecropper and neighbor John Stratford. Stratford made advances on Ingram several times in the past, but this time he was thwarted by Ingram and four of her sons. At the end of the incident, Stratford was dead, and Ingram and her sons were arrested. In a one-day trial, she and two of her sons were found guilty and sentenced to death. Her mother contacted local civil rights officials and word reached the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a communist adjacent organization devoted to the legal defense of working people. The CRC engaged a mass movement technique using the media and public pressure to draw attention to the Ingram’s case. It particularly engaged in campaigns against unpunished sexual assault at a time when other civil rights organizations were wary of any cases involving interracial sex, consensual or not. In 1951, the CRC produced a petition and submitted it to the United Nations charging federal law enforcement with willful neglect and consent to the genocide of Black Americans. The CRC argued that “state’s rights” allowed local legislative and judicial harassment of Black Americans that contributed to genocidal conditions, including poverty, sexual assault, and legal lynching. It insisted that gender violence contributed to genocide and gave state sanction to white Americans killing and raping Black Americans with impunity creating conditions that threatened the existence of Black America, Ingram’s case was central to the petition and the Cold War civil rights movement.

Presented By
Denise Lynn, University of Southern Indiana

“The first thing we cry about is violence”: Anti-Violence Organizing in the National Black Women’s Health Project, 1983

In 1983, Bylley Avery convened the First National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues to remedy the paucity of information about the sicknesses that disproportionately befell African American women. The program juxtaposed panels dedicated to the usual culprits, such as heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer, with those not usually defined as “health issues”: rape, incest, and domestic violence. The following year, Avery founded the National Black Women’s Health Project in Atlanta with the mission of “breaking the conspiracy of silence” that shrouded the black women’s poor health and the systemic oppression that caused it. Gender violence remained at the forefront of NBWHP’s agenda through the passage of the Violence Against Women Act a decade later, which NBWHP blasted for expanding police presence in the face of an obliterated welfare state. This paper explores the extensive but underacknowledged anti-violence organizing conducted by the National Black Women’s Health Project at its headquarters and in the grassroots. NBWHP eschewed the state’s efforts to control rape by expanding police power in the late twentieth century. Instead, they practiced “self-help” to expose and counteract the gender violence in their communities without the intervention of state officials or other white professionals. By framing gender violence as an issue of black women’s health that derived from sexism, racism, and poverty, NBWHP rebuked the state’s responses that the white-dominated anti-violence movement uncritically embraced, including the Violence Against Women Act.

Presented By
Caitlin Reed Wiesner, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

“[Y]ou had the impudence to offer a decent woman like myself a dollar”: Black Women, Sexual Assault, and the Struggle for Sexual Sovereignty in the Late 19th Century

This presentation examines how black women weaponized the conservative language of ‘purity’ in their radical struggle for sexual protection and autonomy in the late 19th century South. It looks briefly to the foundation laid by the turbulent years of Civil War and Reconstruction in ushering an unprecedented legal framework for African American women on the course of sexual justice. Central to this paper is the argument that despite this new legal framework, as in slavery, black women wrestled with the widespread assumption that their sexual availability was part of their general labor. In many cases, marriage neither offered them the protections that were often afforded to white women. What, then, did it mean for working class black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South to enlist racially exclusionary ideals of feminine virtue as a mode of sexual protection? This paper contends that in their claims to sexual respectability, working class black women generated a critical framework around sexual sovereignty as a natural right and shed light on the widespread problem of sexual harassment and abuse in the work environment.

Presented By
Kaisha Esty, Wesleyan University

Session Participants

Chair: Cheryl D. Hicks, University of Delaware
Cheryl D. Hicks is an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. Her research addresses the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the law. She specializes in late nineteenth and twentieth-century African American and American history as well as urban, gender, and civil rights history. Hicks is the author of Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (2010), a book that illuminates the voices and viewpoints of black working-class women, especially southern migrants, who were the subjects of urban and penal reform in early-twentieth-century New York. The book won the 2011 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians and honorable mentions from the Organization of American Historians’ Darlene Clark Hine Award and the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize. She has published in The Journal of African American History, The University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Her current project focuses on the shifting meanings of sexuality, criminality, and black civil rights struggles in Gilded Age and Progressive-Era America

Presenter: Kaisha Esty, Wesleyan University

Kaisha Esty is a historian of gender, sexuality and the State, specializing in sexual sovereignty as a liberatory praxis and politics in the African Diaspora. Using the tools of critical race theory, intersectionality and subaltern studies, Dr. Esty’s scholarship unearths the early radical contributions of enslaved and freed women to modern feminism. Her current manuscript project, A Crusade Against the Despoiler of Virtue: Black Women and the Struggle for Sexual Sovereignty, 1840-1920 examines ‘feminine virtue’ in African American women’s meanings of freedom.
Dr. Esty is an assistant professor of African American Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. She earned a Ph.D. in History at Rutgers University. A native of London, UK, Dr. Esty earned a BA and Masters in American Studies from the University of Nottingham. Her research has received recognition and support from institutions and organizations in the US and the UK.

Presenter: Charlene Jennifer Fletcher, Brown University
Charlene J. Fletcher is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Slavery and Justice at Brown University. Charlene’s research and forthcoming book explores the experiences of confined African-American women in Kentucky from Reconstruction to the Progressive Era, specifically illuminating the lives of confined Black women by examining places other than carceral locales as arenas of confinement, including mental health institutions and domestic spaces. She seeks to explore how these women both defied and defined confinement through their incarceration, interactions with public, social, and political entities of the period, as well as how they challenged ideas of race and femininity.

Presenter: Denise Lynn, University of Southern Indiana
Dr. Denise Lynn is Associate Professor of History and Director of Gender Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. She received her Ph.D. in History in 2006 from Binghamton University, SUNY. She serves as the Vice-President of the Historians of American Communism and writes a regular blog for Black Perspectives, a publication of the African American Intellectual History Society. Her research focuses on gender and race in the American Communist Party. Her articles have appeared in American Communist History, Women’s History Review, Journal of Cold War Studies, Radical Americas, Socialism and Democracy, Twentieth Century Communism, and Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

Presenter: Caitlin Reed Wiesner, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Caitlin Wiesner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University. She earned her Bachelor of the Arts with Distinguished Honors in History and Women's & Gender Studies from The College of New Jersey in 2015. Caitlin studies the history of sexual violence, feminist activism, African American women, and state crime control policy in the late 20th century United States. Her forthcoming dissertation, titled “Controlling Rape: Black Women, the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence, and the State, 1974-1994,” explores how black women's anti-rape activity evolved in response to the state's growing interest in punishing and prosecuting rape during the long War on Crime. Her research has been supported by the Graduate School of New Brunswick, the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, Rutgers Oral History Archives, Smith College Libraries, and the Philanthropic Educational Organization International. She is the 2019-2020 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Women's History at the New-York Historical Society

Commentator: Kidada E. Williams, Wayne State University
Kidada E. Williams investigates African Americans' lived experiences and the psychic and psychological palimpsest of racist violence after slavery. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me, which explores Black southerners’ testimonies of violence from emancipation to World War I. She has also published "Never Get Over It," "Maintaining a Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom," "The Wounds that Cried Out," and "Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching." Williams is completing her second book. Tentatively titled When the White Men Came, it is a new history of Emancipation and Reconstruction from the perspectives of African American families attacked by the Klan. For her third project, the research for which is well under way, Williams is taking a temporary detour from her much-loved study of the 19th century Black South. She is investigating the recent history of rape in Detroit and activists' intrepid fight against it. Part passion project, part quest for justice, in "The Cost of Disbelief" she wants to understand how Michigan went from leading the nation in attempting to provide a degree of justice to victims who reported rape to so horribly failing the girls, boys, and women of Detroit. She hopes this work will facilitate discussions about redress and reforms that the larger community deems just.

She is associate professor of history at Wayne State University, in Detroit.