Before Attica: Long Histories of Carceral State Critique

Solicited by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: African American; Legal and Constitutional; Politics


"Before Attica" focuses on how Black organizing and activism challenged aspects of the nation’s emerging carceral landscape throughout the long Black freedom struggle. Exploring southern policing, legal reform movements that opposed police violence, and the role of racial capitalism in the construction and maintenance of the emerging prison state, this roundtable will look beyond conventional periodization and spatial dimensions and also highlight ways that Black Americans contested the racist and even capitalist logics that undergirded what became a jailhouse nation. Thus, “Before Attica” will illuminate some lesser-known historical precedents that continue to shape contemporary critiques of the so-called carceral state.

Session Participants

Chair and Panelist: Jermaine Thibodeaux, University of Oklahoma
Jermaine Thibodeaux is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Trained in the department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, his academic interests include African American history, Texas history, carceral studies, slavery and capitalism, and Black masculinities. He is currently revising his dissertation manuscript that explores the long and sordid connections between the Texas sugar industry and the rise of the state’s penitentiary system. That project, titled, “The House that Cane Built: Sugar, Race, and the Gendered Formations of the Texas Prison System, 1842-1920,” centers the commodity of sugar in a retelling of the prison system’s history and in so doing, foregrounds Black male convicts and their labor as crucial to the establishment and growth of the Texas carceral landscape.

Panelist: Myisha S. Eatmon, Harvard University
I am a Chapel Hill, North Carolina native and I joined the department as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Fall 2019. I will begin my role as an Assistant Professor of African American History in Fall 2020. My dissertation, titled Public Wrongs, Private Rights: African Americans, Private Law, and White Violence during Jim Crow, explores black legal culture in the face of white-on-black violence under Jim Crow and black civil litigation’s impact on civil law. My interest in social justice drives my research, which focuses on the ways that oppressed persons, particularly African Americans, use their legal imaginations. I have earned the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Research in Legal History Research Grant among other research grants to advance my research on black legal culture, civil law, and Jim Crow. I have also received the Mellon/American Council for Learned Scholars Dissertation Completion Fellowship to complete my dissertation, and I am a Kathryn T. Preyer Fellow and J. Willard Hurst Fellow through the American Society for Legal History and the University of Wisconsin School of Law. I am committed to the recovery of lost histories and voices, to the cultivation of historical and civic debate, and civic engagement and I hope my work will foster discussion inside and outside of the academy.

Panelist: William Iverson Horne, Villanova University
William Horne is a postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University and co-founder and editor of The Activist History Review. He researches racial capitalism and its relationship to carcerality in the aftermaths of slavery. His ongoing projects examine the relationship of white backlashes to the state, systems of policing and incarceration, racial science and the eugenic logic of racial capitalism, and Black grassroots activism and revolutionary thought. He can be followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

Panelist: Justin Randolph, Texas State University
Justin Randolph is Assistant Professor of History at Texas State University, where he specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. social and political history. His primary research concerns the intersection of policing and inequality in the American South. He received his PhD from Yale University in 2020 and his first book, Mississippi Law: The Long Crisis of Policing and Reform in America's Black Countryside, is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press.