"Messin' white women:" white women, black men, and rape in Virginia, 1900-1960

Dorr, Lisa Johanna Lindquist, Department of History, University of Virginia
Lane, Ann, As-History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, As-History, University of Virginia
Butler, Reginald, As-History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores legal and social responses to charges of black-on-white rape. Historians have primarily analyzed these assaults through lynchings or threats of lynching, and suggest that white southerners invariably responded with violence to accusations ofrape. My research challenges this picture. White Virginians' inflammatory rhetoric did not predict black men's ultimate punishment. Instead, criminal trials represented public spectacles in which whites enacted their duty to protect white women, and policed relationships between whites and blacks. After conviction, however, considerations of pardon reveal that white men balanced the need to punish black men with the need simultaneously to reassert related gender and class hierarchies. Though the rules of segregation seem clear, the boundaries around cross-racial and cross-gender interaction remained elastic, expanding to accept some interactions between white women and black men, and contracting to punish others. Whites across class lines engaged in relationships with blacks in many contexts, and used ideas of respectability, and appropriate social, racial, and sexual behavior to determine the relative severity of an assault. The African-American community challenged whites perceptions of black men's alleged crimes, utilizing forms of leverage to shift the focus of the case away from issues of race. After World War II, African Americans' efforts became more focused and more effective, and also benefited African-American women who accused white men of assault, as prosecutions of white-on black rape became more frequent. These cases show how all Virginians contested the meaning of interracial sexual contact, and uncover the tangled web of relationships across race, class, and gender lines in the segregated South.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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