Mrs. Recy Taylor, 1944, credit: The Rape of Recy Taylor; From The People’s World/Daily Worker and Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University
Over the coming weeks and months, we will honor the significant contributions of four Black women and their interconnectedness—the persistence of their struggle for freedom. We are going to tell the stories of Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and Jo Ann Robinson—each of whom fought for freedom in Alabama and beyond, over the course of a 13-year period. In telling their stories, and the larger story of Black women in the struggle, we will see the intersection of race and gender and class, their impact on humanity as a whole, and how their lives intertwined as they sought a better world.
Today we begin with Recy Taylor.
Please note that this piece includes sensitive content about rape and violence that may be difficult for some readers to address. Resources for rape, sexual assault, and violence survivors can be found at the bottom of this post.
Mrs. Recy Taylor, 2011 in Lafayette Park in Washington after touring the White House, Photo: Susan Walsh/Associated Press, via the New York Times
We begin this story in 1944 with an act of horrific violence, one all too familiar for Black women. As historian Danielle McGuire masterfully recounts in At the Dark End of the Street: “Taylor, a slender, copper-colored and beautiful twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, noticed a rattletrap green Chevrolet pass them at least three times, young men gawking from its windows.”
Recy Taylor had just left the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama, after a revival meeting of singing and praying. Walking along the dusty road with a friend late in the night, the truck seemed ominous. As Black women, they knew all too well the racial and sexual terror of Jim Crow Alabama. Sure enough, seven young white men, armed with guns and knives, jumped out of the truck and grabbed Ms. Taylor, forcing her into the backseat. After driving into the piney woods, six of these men raped her as she cried out in anguish, “Please let me go home to my husband and my baby.” After executing their brutal assault, they dropped Ms. Taylor by the side of the country highway. Clothes ripped and despondent, she began to walk back home, in a “dogged determination to return home alive.” (McGuire 7) Later, she reflected on how easily she might have been killed remarking, with inconceivable grace, “the Lord was just with me that night.”
As McGuire points out, “The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. The sexual exploitation of black women by white men had its roots in slavery and continued.” Indeed, sexual violence toward Black women had been prevalent for centuries, degrading and terrorizing Black women, producing racist mythologies of Black women’s sexuality to justify such attacks, and also demoralizing Black men, who could not protect their loved ones. Black women’s bodies were transformed into symbols of racist and patriarchal power. Which is to say, they were used, stolen from Black women themselves–from rape to sterilization, gynecological experiments to the auction block.
And yet, Black women have never been silent. “Black women did not keep their stories secret,” McGuire writes, “African American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults.” They spoke up in church and civil meetings; they wrote autobiographies; they thundered to audiences of abolitionists; sometimes they whispered the truth only to each other. But they spoke out. Recy Taylor told her family, friends, and local authorities. Her case even went to trial. But it was a sham. The Sheriff had made no arrests of the seven white men, had not brought them in for questioning, had collected no investigation nor collected evidence. When the trial came a couple of months later, the all-white, all-male jury in Henry County refused to indict. The Taylor family left without receiving justice; instead, they received death threats and their home was set on fire. “While survivors of sexualized violence rarely received justice in Southern courts,” Danielle McGuire explains, “black women like Recy Taylor who were raped by white men in the 1940s used their voices as weapons against white supremacy.”
Recy Taylor’s harrowing account and the injustice done to her and her family caught the ears and eyes of the NAACP office in Montgomery, which had been working for decades on behalf of justice for Black Americans. Enraged by Taylor’s story, chapter President E.D. Nixon called for one of the NAACP’s most trusted investigators and a tireless advocate: Rosa Parks.
Our series will continue in the coming weeks with Rosa Parks.
To learn more about Recy Taylor and her story, watch the film The Rape of Recy Taylor.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of sexual violence, these resources may be able to offer help.
This post is part of a series written for the Alabama Chanin Journal by Dr. Ansley Quiros. Ansley is a new contributing writer to the Journal. Get to know her here. Read more from her here. And follow her here.