Black History Month Blog Post
Black women are disproportionately impacted by all forms of violence. In a study conducted by the Black Women’s Blueprint, 40-60% of Black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18. 40% of confirmed sex trafficking survivors in the United States are Black. Domestic violence is related to an estimated 51.3% of Black adult female homicides.
Black women, particularly Black women survivors of violence, have been at the forefront of social justice movements. In honor of Black History month, we recognize the leadership and legacy of Black women who have pioneered and shaped the movement against sexual assault through history. We pay homage to their guidance, wisdom and contributions.
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Born a slave in 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs suffered sexual harassment, abuse and violence at the hands of her master and his wife. She escaped to freedom in 1842 and later wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, focusing on the sexual exploitation experienced by slave women. Her autobiography initiated some of the first open discussions about sexual violence against slave women.
Ida B. Wells
By 1909, Ida B. Wells was one of the most well-known anti-lynching campaigners in the United States. In 1892, Ida wrote an editorial in Memphis about lynching after her friend Thomas Moss was lynched by a white mob. Ida grew to be one of the first investigative reporters in this period. Lynch mobs frequently stereotyped and accused Black men of raping white women. Ida began investigating the accusations by visiting the scene of lynching and interviewing witnesses. When it became unsafe for Ida to return to Memphis, she began to travel the United States and Europe to raise awareness about lynching.
While walking home from a church event in September of 1944, Recy Taylor was abducted and raped by a gang of 6 white men. She bravely reported the attack to police. Despite attacks and threats against her family, Ms. Taylor was courageous and relentless in her pursuit of justice. Her refusal to stay silent was a catalyst in the civil rights movement and mobilized civil rights leaders across the country. Her story inspired other Black women to speak out about their assaults. Although witnesses confirmed her story and several of the men confessed, ultimately none of her attackers were indicted. Today some have credited Mrs. Taylor’s bravery with laying the foundation for the women’s rights movement. She remains a symbol in the fight against sexual violence and racial injustice.
11 years before her refusal to give up her seat on a bus, Rosa Parks served as a pivotal advocate in the movement for victim rights. Following the attack of Recy Taylor in 1944, Rosa Parks worked as an investigator with the NACCP and organized the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. When the grand jury failed to indict Mrs. Taylor’s assailants, Rosa Parks urged people to write protest letters. After the then-Alabama governor received hundreds of outraged letters, he ordered a second investigation into the rape of Mrs. Taylor. In 1974, Rosa Parks founded the Joanne Little Defense Committee in Detroit, after Joanne Little was charged with murder for defending herself against sexual advances from a corrections officer. Throughout her life, Rosa Parks was committed to securing justice for Black survivors of violence.
The first woman in the United States to be acquitted for using deadly force in self-defense against sexual assault was Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) Little. While incarcerated in 1974, Joan murdered a white jailer when he attempted to sexually assault her. She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of the death penalty in North Carolina. Her case revolutionized conversations about women’s rights, racial injustice, sexual violence, the death penalty, and prisoners’ rights. Civil rights leaders, including Angela Davis and Rosa Parks, were adamant supporters and helped to organize Little’s defense. Joan Little’s victory opened the door for women to be able to defend themselves against violent attacks.
The term “intersectionality” was created by a Black woman, Kimberle’ Crenshaw. Kimberle’ is a law professor, scholar, and a writer on a wide array of topics including civil rights, critical race theory, Black feminist legal theory, racism and the law. She is a Professor of Law at both Columbia Law School and the University of California Los Angeles. Her work regarding intersectionality has become a guiding principle of social justice movements in the United States today and it was an essential influence in the development of the equality clause in the South African constitution.
Beth Richie, Ph.D.
Dr. Beth E. Richie is known for both her scholarly research and activism regarding the ways race and social position affect African American battered women and sexual assault survivors. She is the head of the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice and Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her book Compelled to Crime: the Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women, is taught in many college courses and is cited in the popular press for its original arguments concerning race, gender and crime.
Carolyn M. West, Ph.D.
Dr. Carolyn M. West is an award-winning author, filmmaker, keynote speaker, and Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. Dr. West is a nationally recognized Black feminist scholar who investigates gender-based violence in the lives of African American women, with a focus on domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Dr. West has authored more than 70 academic publications and is editor/contributor of the book Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue (Routledge, 2002). In 2018, she produced the documentary “Let me tell ya’ll ‘bout Black chicks: Images of Black women in pornography.”
An activist and organizer since the late 1980’s, Tarana Burke is best-known as a leader in the fight against sexual violence. During the 2017 Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, her hashtag “#metoo” became a rallying cry for survivors around the world. The tag was used more than 19 million times on twitter alone. The #metoo movement continued to be relevant and influential during the 2018 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the 2019 #muterkelly movement.
Thank you not only to the Black women that have contributed to the movement against sexual violence, but also to the countless Black advocates and activists that have led all social justice movements.
For resources on how to become an ally to the Black community in Washington, check out the statewide business resource group, Blacks United In Leadership and Diversity (BUILD) Resource page.
Violence Against Black Women – Many Types, Far-reaching Effects – IWPR 2020
Black Women and Sexual Violence (now.org)
Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897 (unc.edu)
Recy Taylor: 100 Women of the Year | Time
How history got the Rosa Parks story wrong – The Washington Post
Recy Taylor’s brutal rape: The NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate – The Washington Post
Aug. 15: 1975: Joan Little Acquitted – Zinn Education Project (zinnedproject.org)
Tarana Burke | National Women’s History Museum
Kimberle W. Crenshaw | Columbia Law School
(1909) Ida B. Wells, “Lynching, Our National Crime” • (blackpast.org)
Richie, Beth E. | Criminology, Law and Justice | University of Illinois at Chicago (uic.edu)