I spoke with Geogea Kovanis of the Detroit Free Press about the historical research that led me to Recy Taylor and her connection to Rosa Parks. More than 13 years ago, I found a thread in a pamphlet put out by the Civil Rights Congress in the 1950s that mentioned her name. There was nothing written about her in any history book or article. If you googled her name the only information that came up was about recycling (r-e-c-y). Read more here:
And here’s the text:
“Oprah Winfrey spoke movingly about Recy Taylor at Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony.
But if not for Danielle McGuire, a historian and author from Huntington Woods, the story of Taylor — a black woman from Abbeville, Ala., who was raped in 1944 by six white men, threatened with death if she reported the incident but spoke out anyway, only to have the men go free — might have slipped into obscurity.
McGuire, 43, began researching the case in 2003.
She learned shortly after the incident, the NAACP office in Montgomery, Ala. sent Rosa Parks — whose actions years later would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott — to investigate the case.
She found information on the attack that wasn’t available in Abbeville, including a private investigation by the then-governor of Alabama Chauncey Sparks in which one of the assailants corroborated Taylor’s report.
McGuire met Taylor in 2009.
And she turned Taylor into the subject of a 2010 book: “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” (Vintage, $16.95).
In 2011, state and local government officials issued apologies to Taylor.
Taylor died Dec. 28, a few days short of her 98th birthday. Her obituary appeared in the New York Times.
The Free Press spoke with McGuire about Taylor and her legacy. Following are her comments, edited for clarity and brevity.
On Oprah’s speech: Of course, I expected her to talk about #MeToo too and sexual assault, especially in that environment. I definitely didn’t expect her to talk about Recy Taylor. … I was just so thrilled to see Recy Taylor get such an incredible platform, even after her passing. It was just a remarkable moment for her.
On why the moment was so incredible: When I first started doing research into her case, there was absolutely nothing written. I mean that. If you typed her name into Google, all you got was recycling, r-e-c-y. Today if you do it, there’s almost a million search returns on Google. It’s incredible that her story has been carried by so many people … and that she gets the kind of credit she deserves. I only wish that Oprah could have met her because I think she would have been as inspired by her as I am. Clearly it sparked something in her to make her talk about (Taylor) at the Golden Globes.
On how Recy Taylor inspired her: Recy Taylor inspired me every day. For lots of different reasons. Whenever I think I have it hard, I think about what she had to endure. Not just when she was assaulted, but growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, the way every single institution said her life didn’t matter. I can never feel sorry for myself or think that I’ve got it bad.
The other thing is she spoke out long before the personal was political, before women took back the night, before Hollywood actresses said #MeToo. She did it at a time she could have been killed for it … when I asked her, “Why did you speak out after they threatened you?” she said, “Because I didn’t deserve what they did to me.” So often, we, as women and girls, are trained to think about what we did to cause the wrong that was done. I admire her tenacity and her boldness. Her courage. I’m inspired by the way that she loved for decades afterward and didn’t hate. I was inspired by the fact that she let me into her house and told me her story.
On how she became interested in Taylor in the first place: I knew that rape was common during slavery and I wanted to know if the practices that were so common during slavery continued after emancipation. So I was researching sexual violence against black women by white men, that was my broad research topic for my book. It’s really hard to find (marginalized) women archived — working class, women of color, indigenous women. Cases were hard to come by. But they were there. In one of the archives that I was in, I found a pamphlet form the Civil Rights Congress, which was kind of a leftist northern civil rights organization. The pamphlet was a listing of all the crimes that had been committed against African-Americans. It said something like the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor petitioned Gov. Chauncey Sparks for justice in her case.
On what happened next: I thought, “Gosh, governors have archives. If there’s something in the governor’s archives …” I went to Alabama and I ordered Gov. Chauncey Sparks’ papers and he had four boxes of material on Recy Taylor. It was absolutely astounding. It was like an archival goldmine in the sense that you never find those kind of detailed documents on (marginalized) women. You also never find investigations in that era, where it’s sort of proven that the state is trying to cover up and protect assailants in a crime.
On Taylor’s funeral, which took place last week: It was probably a fairly traditional Southern Black Baptist homegoing. There was this lovely choir. … I don’t know the gospel titles, but I know that they sang that she’s going to put on a hat, she’s going to put on a crown, she’s going to wear a robe up in heaven. … She was beautiful in her casket, which is kind of a weird thing to say. But she looked radiant. She had the most gorgeous black and white outfit and a beautiful hat on. She liked hats.”