I met Mrs. Recy Taylor at her brother, Robert Corbitt’s, tidy ranch home in Abbeville, Alabama the same day that millions of Americans gathered in Washington D.C. to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
I was in Abbeville to interview Mrs. Recy Taylor for my doctoral dissertation about how she survived being kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of white teenagers in 1944. The rapists threatened to kill her if she reported the crime, but she immediately told the Sheriff, her husband, father and a detective sent by the Montgomery NAACP. The detective, a fierce young activist named Rosa Parks, carried Taylor’s testimony back to Montgomery where she and the city’s most radical organizers helped launch a national movement to punish Taylor’s assailants.
I knocked on the front door with my 6-month-old daughter, Ruby, in a stroller and a box full of documents, articles and petitions—the fruits of nearly ten years of research—at my heels. Mr. Corbitt embraced me and welcomed me to his home. He was a small child when his eldest sister Recy was assaulted. He had tried unsuccessfully for years to find evidence of what happened—a newspaper article, a police report, a witness. Any kind of record of the terrorism inflicted upon his sister and his family. But there was nothing locally.
He took the box and invited me into his living room where 15 or 20 members of the family waited. Here were Recy Taylor and her siblings, her nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews. It was a multi-generation tribunal ready to bear witness.
I was nervous. I was afraid that I would conjure ghosts that had been buried deep in the recesses of Taylor’s heart and mind and that I would cause more harm asking her to relay everything that happened that night in 1944.
Older women passed Ruby from knee to knee. She cooed as they pinched her chubby cheeks and patted her head lovingly, while I discussed everything I had uncovered.
My findings, culled from archives in New York, Alabama, Washington D.C. and Chicago, included Governor Chauncey Sparks’ private investigation which corroborated Taylor’s report and contained admissions from Taylor’s assailants; articles about the national campaign and petitions and postcards from men and women around the world demanding justice on her behalf.
I can never fully know what it meant to Robert, Recy, and their family to have those documents, but I know it meant a lot. The box contained evidence of both the original crime against Taylor and the state’s efforts to dismiss, diminish and disappear her victimization.
Excising the history of racial and sexual terror dehumanizes and delegitimizes Black people’s lives and experiences. And it falsely asserts white innocence and impunity, which advances the agenda of white supremacy.
If they felt any cynicism or skepticism about a white historian asking for a black woman’s story of sexual violation, they did not show it. Given the history of appropriation, theft, and lies about black women’s sexuality by whites, including some historians, they had every right to distrust me.
That Mrs. Recy Taylor and her family welcomed me into their home and shared with me their most bitter and heartbreaking memories remains a profound act of trust and grace.
Finding My Way
My journey to Abbeville began years before I arrived on Robert Corbitt’s doorstep. I grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, a nearly all-white town that was anchored by a General Motors assembly plant. My parents divorced when I was a toddler and my mother worked as a secretary and cleaning lady.
I knew plenty about class because of our fragile economic status, but I never thought about race until I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, Savage Inequalities when I was a junior in high school in 1991. Kozol’s searing indictment of racial and economic disparities, hyper-segregation, and discriminatory tracking of poor students of color in America’s public schools shattered everything I thought knew about America and my place in it.
I asked my principal if I could test Kozol’s thesis and spend time at an “inner city” school in Milwaukee. So, that fall I spent a week at South Division High School, where I sat in on classes, wandered the halls and talked with teachers and students at the majority Black and Hispanic school. Everyone was cordial, but mostly they ignored me. Why wouldn’t they? My visit was temporary. I was only there to “observe”—a fraught act in itself.
My visit to South Division unsettled me. It was the first time I felt my whiteness acutely, where my skin color marked me as different. But what truly shocked me was that the resources available to me at my suburban school—college counselors, abundant extracurricular opportunities, rigorous art and science programs, Advanced Placement courses—were simply not available to the kids at South Division.
I realized at some point that week that while we may be running on the same educational track, I had been given a major head start. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the South Division students to catch up. It seemed to me, even then, that maybe that was the point.
This was the first time I bore witness to a system (public schools) that was profoundly unequal. It helped me begin to see the world with new eyes and forced me to ask hard questions. How could kids enrolled in public schools have such unequal access to opportunity? How is this kind of inequality possible? What caused it? What role did race and class play? And what could I do about it?
My search for answers led me first to the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education where I wanted to know more about America’s education policy. When my questions about race and racial inequality weren’t fully answered there, I moved to the Department of Afro-American Studies, where I immersed myself in African-American art, literature, history and music. I began to focus on African American’s long struggle for freedom, justice and basic citizenship rights and learned about their resistance to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “thingifcation” of white supremacy; people like Mrs. Taylor, her family, and the activists who rallied to her defense.
Studying Black history taught me much about white supremacy; about the ways in which our racial, gender, and class exclusions are carved into our Constitution, politics, schools, and religions. I learned about slavery and how whites justified it; how white people created a system of apartheid to deny Black people access to liberty, equality and opportunity; and how whites used mob violence, lynching, rape, and state-sponsored terror to keep blacks “in their place.”
Over time, I came to see the strategic and willful denial white people employ to maintain a sense of innocence about this history. We’ve done this by erecting statues to Confederate “heroes”, rewriting history to make white terror invisible; creating pseudosciences to justify our belief in our own supremacy and our inhumanity towards people of color; and feigning ignorance about how all of this enables us to sit atop our political, social and economic hierarchies–as if we all started the race at the same time but white people were just better, faster, and smarter.
It took years, but I finally understood that the differences in access to opportunity between South Division and my high school was rooted in this history of white supremacy. Racial inequality was no accident; it was by design.
Besides reading deeply, I also sought out a diverse group of friends and regularly put myself in spaces that were not predominately white. I learned to lean into my own discomfort in those spaces. I learned that being an ally didn’t mean being a savior or rescuing someone and it wouldn’t let me off the hook for my complicity in a system that grants me unearned benefits every day. It does mean learning to listen, decentering oneself, and doing the work at hand. It means being able to see and hear marginalized people and to center their experiences and expertise. And it also means going back to our own white communities, where there is much to be done.
It is not surprising that the history of the Civil Rights Movement sparked something mental and elemental in me. Here was a group of people, mostly African Americans and a small number of whites, who worked to dismantle racist structures, institutions and ideas brick by brick. I wanted to do similar work.
I’ve devoted my life as a professional historian to researching and writing about these warriors for justice. My job is to produce rigorous scholarship about the past that ordinary people want to read and that does real work in the present.
My responsibility as a white woman, as I see it, is to document and denounce white supremacy; to use my privilege to amplify or make space for the voices and experiences of people who are silenced, ignored or disappeared by it; and to try to live up to the example of decency and truth-telling set by people like Mrs. Recy Taylor, Mr. Robert Corbitt and Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Two years after my visit to Abbeville, my book, which began as a master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin in 1999 and then became a PhD dissertation at Rutgers in 2007, was published by Knopf.
At the Dark End of the Street begins with Recy Taylor’s testimony in 1944 and argues that decades before the Women’s Movement, Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled major civil rights campaigns across the South, including the 1955-6 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and the 1965 Selma campaign. It centers Black women’s experiences and leadership in the civil rights movement, like Betty Jean Owens’ historic testimony in 1959 and Joan Little’s bold resistance to sexual assault while incarcerated in North Carolina in the 1970s.
In 2011, the Alabama legislature issued a formal apology for its “morally abhorrent and repugnant” failure to prosecute Recy Taylor’s case. An apology is not justice, but it was a small step towards state recognition and reconciliation. Even the Governor of Alabama had to finally say her name and acknowledge Mrs. Taylor’s humanity.
Now, a documentary film by Nancy Buirski and a dramatic feature by Julie Dash will bring Mrs. Recy Taylor’s story to more people. My hope is that readers of my book and viewers of Buirski and Dash’s films will be as inspired as I am by Mrs. Recy Taylor’s [and others’] courage, tenacity and bold demand for bodily integrity.
And that they, too, will use their voices as weapons against past and present injustices, especially racial and sexual violence.