I Saw their Stars: Race, Rape and Policing in the US South – Meeting Report

The 27th November 2017 saw the last GSRN session of 2017 presented by Reading University PhD student Liz Barnes. Liz is a sessional lecturer and module convenor in the history department, working on sexual violence in the post-civil war US. She is also the history editor over at Question.

The title of the talk, I saw their stars’, is actually a quotation from court testimony from black freedwoman Lucy Smith, who was raped by during the Memphis Riots shortly after the end of the civil war, between 1-3 May 1866. According to Lucy, she had in fact been raped by the Police, whose recognisable silver insignia had remained visible on a breast pocket or lapel during the assault. The brazenness of the assault, Liz suggested, has many important connotations for the role played by race, gender and class in the historical development of US policing.  The present-day consequences of US law enforcement’s civic origins are of particular interest given the widespread outcry in recent years around institutional racism in Western nations (including the UK), and the emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter.

I saw their stars - sheriff

C.M. Bell, Unidentified Capitol Police Officer, 1873[?], Library of Congress

Law enforcement in the antebellum South was dominated by elected Sheriffs and slave patrols, the latter of whom were a mix of state-backed militia and informal or commercial thugs. As one would expect from an almost completely unregulated group whose subjects had no human rights at all, they had a reputation for corruption, extortion and blackmail. Liz was keen to stress that these patrols would often be conducted in a spirit of great reverie, and punitive ‘raids’ mixed with heavy drinking were an important social event for patrolling white men. Black female slaves were routinely targeted, with black male slaves being beaten or whipped away so women could be raped. Such was the predilection of these groups for targeting women that female slaves were far less likely to stray from plantations for fear of sexual assault, but the prevalence of domestic raids was common enough that many sought still more isolated refuge in swamps or dense woodland.

A crucial aspect of the racial dimension to these practices was that free blacks were also commonly victimised, which bound the sense of a person as property more closely to skin colour. The racist worldview that celebrated violence against blacks and particularly women persisted even when it was no longer fully concentric with legal reality, which Liz argued became more complex after the abolition of slavery itself. Though no longer legal, the so-called ‘colour line’ was maintained by the absorption of violent, anti-slave behaviour into official police forces or via the transformation of informal slave patrols into racist vigilantes such as the Klu Klux Klan. As with the slave patrols, the systematic rape and abuse of black women was a key feature of  post-civil war police conduct. Liz highlighted one instance where a free black woman named Mary was actually taken back to her former master’s house by the police and gang-raped. The atmosphere of a wild party persisted in police practice too, with extended home invasions taking place where officers would demand to be supplied with alcohol and food.

While such horrors were not uncommon, it is interesting that after the civil war domestic raids such as the one on Mary were done under false pretences, however flimsy. Liz later added in the Q &A that the anonymity provided by the conical hoods of the KKK was also a sham, as they would often take their hoods off during attacks and jokingly refer to each other by name. It is perhaps for this reason that it was during the anarchic few days of the Memphis riots the opportunity was taken by many members of the police to rape and kill newly free black citizens. But as the titular example of Lucy Smith makes abundantly clear, although the police would theoretically conceal their actions in an administrative sense, the authority that came with a visual uniform was a key tool in making black communities feel permanently unsafe, and in effect extending the social reality of slavery after its abolition. A particular striking example of how the bodies of female black citizens remained, in a sense, a white person’s property, is in the case of Elvira Walker. Elvira was molested by an officer in uniform who told her that he would rape her unless she paid him five dollars – a situation whereby Elvira had to buy back her own body from its supposedly pre-existing status as the property of a white man, in this case also a representative of the state.

One aspect of Liz’s research which is highly original is her use neglected testimony from the few black women who actually did prosecute their attackers. Many women did not feel able to report these crimes at institutions dominated by their attacker’s colleagues and friends. Evidence seems to back up their fears of institutional collaboration or covering up: not only where imprisoned attackers sometimes deliberately allowed to escape, but Southern authorities were often reluctant to prosecute at all. In the testimony of Hannah Tutson, who along with her husband was the victim of a violent domestic raid, the couple did not particularly emphasise the rape that took place, but the other general violence that took place, which suggests they believed a conviction for ordinary assault more likely.

The similarities between antebellum slave patrol behaviour and post-civil war police conduct is striking, as is the persistence of an ideology that perceived black women’s bodies as property or even territory after that stopped being a legal fact. At the end of her talk, Liz discussed some contemporary instances that show markedly similar traits: during the 2015 prosecution of Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was eventually convicted of raping thirteen different African-American Women, victim Jessica Testa was candid in the fact that she had doubts and concerns about being taken seriously by an institution ran by the officer’s mostly white, mostly male peers.

We are all grateful to Liz for her talk, which although on a very harrowing subject, is one of incredible importance today. The wealth of original sources and research made for an invigorating talk that we were grateful to host. We wish her the best of luck with the rest of her project!


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