Get Them Rags Off: From Slavery Onward, A Black Woman’s Body Was Never Hers Alone

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Recy Taylor with her daughter and husband

To mark the start of the ever-questionable Black History Month and what would have been the 106th birthday of the ever-iconic Rosa Parks - "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in" - we pay tribute to Recy Taylor, the 24-year-old black mother abducted and gang raped in 1944 Alabama by six white boys, and to all the other unnamed, unheard black women likewise victimized by what was long a "weapon of terror" wielded by white men in the Jim Crow South. Taylor was walking home from church in the small town of Abbeville when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint; begging for her life, she promised to stay silent so she could return to her husband and nine-month-old daughter. But she spoke up. Though she and her family were harassed and the boys were never brought to justice, Taylor's rape became the focus of a high-profile  N.A.A.C.P. campaign led by a tough women's rights advocate - Rosa Parks. It also became a galvanizing moment for a civil rights movement that took far too long to acknowledge a key, enduring injustice: In an America rooted in slavery, charged activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”

Taylor's harrowing story has been told in the book, "At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance," and in the film, "The Rape of Recy Taylor." Both determinedly place her story in the broader context of the brutal history of sexual violence against black women, part of what Ida Wells, fiery 1890s anti-lynching activist and editor called a post-slavery “system of intimidation” designed to keep them “subservient and submissive.” Unlike lynchings of black men, there was little visual record of rapes of black women; still, they were so common, wrote activist Anna Julia Cooper, “Only the black woman can say, ‘When and where I enter, then and there the whole (race) enters with me.’" Taylor helped break the silence around those crimes; today, black women still toil to reclaim their bodies, stories, humanity. In 2011, the state of Alabama finally issued an apology, offering Taylor their "deepest sympathies and solemn regrets" for the failure to indict her attackers - a failure one Democratic lawmaker deemed "morally abhorrent." Taylor was then 91; she died at 97, having earlier visited the Obama White House. To those seeking to retell her story, she explained speaking up long ago in stark, steadfast terms: "I had to say what they did to me."

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Prologue from "At the Dark End of the Street" by Danielle McGuire.

© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

"ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1944, the Rock Hill Holiness Church, in Abbeville, Alabama, rocked late into the night. It was nearly midnight when the doors of the wooden, one-story church swung open releasing streams of worshippers, all African American, into the moonlight. After a night of singing and praying, Recy Taylor, Fannie Daniel, and Daniel’s eighteen year- old son, West, stepped out of the country chapel and strolled toward home alongside the peanut plantations that bounded the Abbeville-Headland highway. 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 white men gawking from its windows.

“You reckon what they are up to?” Taylor asked.

Taylor and Daniel, a stout sixty- one- year- old woman, watched the car creep by one last time and roll to a stop a few feet ahead of them. Seven men, armed with knives and guns, got out of the car and walked toward the women. Herbert Lovett, the oldest of the crew at twenty- four and a private in the U.S. Army, shouted, “Halt!”

When they ignored the order, Lovett leveled his shotgun. West tugged at his mother’s sleeve, begging her to stop. “They might shoot you,” he whispered.

As the circle of men closed in, Lovett waved his gun at Taylor.

“We’re looking for this girl, right there. She’s the one that cut that white boy in Clopton this evening,” Lovett said, adding that the local sheriff, George H. Gamble, had dispatched the group to find the alleged assailant.

“You’re wrong,” Fannie insisted. “She’s been to my house all day.”

The men crowded closer, nodding their heads in agreement. “Ain’t this her?” Lovett asked.

“Yep, this the one,” Joe Culpepper said. “I know her by the clothes she got on.”

“That’s her,” Luther Lee agreed. “Get her!”

Lovett lurched toward Taylor and grabbed her arm. Then he turned to West and asked if Taylor was his wife.

“No,” West replied, “she’s Willie Guy Taylor’s wife.” Undeterred, Lovett extended his hand to the teenager, ordered him to shake it, and promised not to hurt Taylor.

“We’re going to take her up here and see if Mr. Gamble knows her,” Lovett claimed. “If she’s not the one, we’ll bring her right back.”
As Lovett spoke, Taylor managed to wrest her arm from his grasp and bolted toward a stand of trees behind a cabin.1

“Come back! Come back!” Fannie yelled. “They going to shoot you. Come back!”

“Stop!” Lovett shouted. He cocked the gun at the back of her head. “I’ll kill you if you run.”

Lovett walked Taylor to the car and shoved her into the backseat. Three men piled in behind her, while four others squeezed into the front. The headlights switched off and the car crept away. After a few miles, the green sedan turned off the main highway, rattled down a red-clay tractor path into the woods, and stopped in a grove of pecan trees. “Y’all aren’t carrying me to Mr. Gamble,” Taylor shouted. The men in the backseat clasped her wrists and ordered her to be quiet. Lovett grabbed his gun and waved Taylor and his companions out of the car.

“Get them rags off,” he barked, pointing the shotgun at her, “or I’ll kill you and leave you down here in the woods.”

Sobbing, Taylor pulled off her clothes.

“Please,” she cried, “let me go home to my husband and my baby.”

Lovett spread an old hunting coat on the ground, told his friends to strip down to their socks and undershirts, and ordered Taylor to lie down.

Lovett passed his rifle to a friend and took off his pants. Hovering over the young mother, he snarled, “Act just like you do with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.”
. . .
Lovett was the first of six men to rape Taylor that night. When they finished, someone helped her get dressed, tied a handkerchief over her eyes, and shoved her back into the car. Back on the highway, the men stopped and ordered Taylor out of the car. “Don’t move until we get away from here,” one of them yelled. Taylor heard the car disappear into the night. She pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and began the long walk home."

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Taylor. Photo by Al.com

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