Black Women Who Have Pushed The Sexual Assault Awareness Movement Forward

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The month of April marks both Black Women's History Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While the overlap may have been accidental, the pairing is of great significance given that Black women have played a pivotal role in pushing the sexual assault awareness movement forward.

Keep scrolling to see just a few of the brave, fearless, and history-making Black women who refused to be silenced and used their voices to champion change.

Recy Taylor

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During the Jim Crow era, it was dangerous for a Black woman to speak out against white aggressors, especially when it came to sexual violence. Despite these threats, Recy Taylor shook the country when she bravely testified against the six white men who raped her in September 1944.

Taylor, who was a sharecropper, was walking home with her son and friends from a church event when a group of men pulled up in a green Chevrolet and forced Taylor to get into the car at gunpoint. The men drove her out to the wood, threatened to kill her, and had their way with the Alabama woman before dumping her on the side of the road. After Taylor’s father and a former police chief found her, she reported the incident, and the suspects were even identified, but they were never brought into custody.

Outrage from civil rights groups, including the NAACP, eventually led to a trial in early October 1944. Unfortunately, the all-white male jury dismissed the case within 5 minutes, leading to further protests and calls to action from prominent Black activists such as Rosa Parks. While Taylor never got justice against her rapists, she did receive a formal apology from the Alabama Legislature in 2011. Her case ignited more awareness and activism around sexual violence against Black women. 

Tarana Burke

32nd Anniversary Celebrating Women Breakfast

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Tarana Burke has been championing civil and women's rights since before she became the founder of MeToo. According to her website, the Bronx native spearheaded initiatives against racial discrimination, housing equality, and other issues before she pivoted to helping survivors of sexual assault. The activist realized that victims did not have much access to resources and support, so she developed a theory that helps survivors realize that healing is a journey, not a destination. This came to a head in 2017 when people from all races, backgrounds, sexes and more started coming forward with their #MeToo stories from some of the most powerful figures in the world, from disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein to famous R&B and hip hop star R. Kelly. Burke has been honored for her continued work helping millions of survivors advocate for themselves and learn to heal from their traumatic experiences. 

Rosa Parks

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Most people know Rosa Parks as the fearless civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Now more people are learning that she was also a secretary and criminal justice investigator for the NAACP in Alabama. Twelve years before she organized the infamous bus boycott, Parks worked with Black people facing potential lynchings and false accusations, as well as survivors of sexual assault. Parks herself opened up about how she was nearly raped by a white male neighbor, saying, “I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.” She also investigated Recy Taylor’s case, where she was gang-raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama. Despite threats from the town’s sheriff, who frequently drove by Parks’ house, she continued fighting for Taylor’s day in court. The civil rights activist formed the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor, which brought Taylor’s case to nationwide attention. Even though Taylor never got justice against her rapists, Parks’ involvement in the case serves as a sterling example to those continuing to fight for survivors today. 

Harriet Ann Jacob

Photo: Journal of the Civil War Era

Harriet Ann Jacob’s story is not as widely known as other key abolitionists in the 1800s, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, became one of the most important slave narratives from the era. The book documented the frequent sexual advances and harassment from her white master in North Carolina, Dr. James Norcom. After Jacob had two children with a white lawyer, the enraged Norcom was about to put her kids to work on a plantation. This prompted Jacob to successfully escape to New York City, where she eventually became legally free thanks to a friend. Her peers also convinced her to write her now-famous autobiography, which became one of the first slave narratives about the sexual harassment slave women would face and the invisibility of them in white society.

After the publication of her book, Jacob became an abolitionist and helped newly-freed slaves and Black refugees during the Civil War. Her autobiography is now studied by feminist scholars and those who study racism and intersectionality. 

Anita Hill

Audible Presents: "In Love And Struggle" At The Minetta Lane Theatre – February 29

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In October 1991, Anita Hill became a trailblazer as the first woman to publicly speak out against workplace harassment. A former assistant to Clarence Thomas, Hill accused the Supreme Court Justice nominee of engaging in multiple, graphic conversations about sex without her consent and repeatedly asking her out even though she refused. Hill bravely gave her testimony in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee as Thomas went through questioning to serve on the nation’s highest court. Millions at home tuned in to Hill speaking out against sexual harassment and were inspired to do the same. Thomas was still confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, but Hill’s public testimony opened the door for the #MeToo movement. 

Kimberle Crenshaw

The New York Women's Foundation's 2018 Celebrating Women Breakfast

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Kimberle Crenshaw assisted Hill’s legal team during her testimony against Clarence Thomas. Crenshaw witnessed firsthand how the case pitted civil rights activists and feminists against each other — civil rights supporters wanted to see Thomas become the first Black Supreme Court Justice, while feminists stood with Hill as she bravely spoke out against workplace harassment. Crenshaw saw Black women suffering from the division of two forms of discrimination that deeply overlapped. She coined the term intersectionality, which gave more space and visibility to Black women and their suffering. Crenshaw’s work forced people to recognize that sexual harassment was not only a white women’s issue. Intersectionality is a term now at the forefront of feminism and racial justice because of Crenshaw’s dedication to unerasing violence against Black women.

Rosa Lee Ingram

Photo: Charles H. Martin

Rosa Lee Ingram, a 40-year-old Georgia sharecropper, was sexually harassed by John Stratford for years. In 1947, years of harassment came to a head when Stratford threatened Ingram with a gun for refusing to have sex with him. Ingram and her sons fought back against the attempted sexual assault and killed Stratford in an act of self-defense. The Georgia sharecropper and her children were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

The NAACP and other communist organizations rallied to Ingram’s defense and her wrongful conviction made headlines. Communist leader Claudia Jones published her famous article “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman,” using Ingram’s case to point out the triple oppression Black women faced. Ingram captured the attention of the nation bringing light to the daily sexual exploitation of Black women. After spending 12 years in prison, Ingram and her sons were paroled in 1959, free of their death sentence. 

Anonymous Memphis Riot Survivors

Memphis, Tennessee Riots of 1866

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In the wake of the Civil War, white people across the South carried out massacres to intimidate the newly freed Black people who were building towns with schools and successful businesses. One such massacre occurred in Memphis, Tennessee in 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended. About 50 people were killed in the violence and dozens of Black women suffered sexual assault. Five Black women survivors testified as part of a Congressional investigation, marking the first time in American history testimony of sexual assault was provided in a US court trial. Despite their courageous actions to come forward, none of the perpetrators were found guilty. 

Read more about the Anonymous Memphis Riot Survivors here

Ruby McCollum

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In 1952 in the small farming town of Live Oak, Florida, a Black woman named Ruby McCollum admitted to shooting and killing a white man, C. Leroy Adams, after years of sexual and physical abuse, and forced child bearings. McCollum stated that she was pregnant with Adams’ child at the time of the shooting and that her two-year-old daughter was also his child. 

Renowned author-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston covered McCollum’s trial for the Pittsburgh Courier. Hurston sat in a segregated press gallery, in view of Ku Klux Klan members who’d attended the trial. Hurston’s coverage helped McCollum gain national attention despite her testimony being objected to by white judges –– some of whom served as pallbearers for Adams’ funeral –– and an all-white male jury –– many of whom were Adams’ patients. 

Hurston documented that McCollum’s attempt to tell her story before the court was blocked 38 times by prosecutors and upheld by the presiding judge. 

The jury convicted McCollum on December 20, 1952 and sentenced her to death. After an appeal, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction on a technicality –– the presiding judge wasn’t present when the jury examined the crime scene. 

During the legal process, McCollum had been held in a Florida jail and her defense attorney, Frank Cannon began to worry about her mental health as a result. 

A new trial began, with Cannon submitting a plea that McCollum was not mentally able to stand trial. The plea was accepted and McCollum was committed to a state-run mental health facility. Years later, she was released after Cannon filed under the Baker Act. She passed away in 1992 from a stroke.  

Read more on the details of McCollum’s case

Joan Little

Joan Little Murder Trial

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In the mid-1970s, during the height of the Black Power Movement, a 22-year-old Joan Little ignited a conversation about the sexualized stereotypes Black women have fought against for generations. 

Little was awaiting trial in a North Carolina jail when a white jail officer, Clarence Alligood, came to her cell armed with an ice pick with the intention of coercing Little into sexual acts. Little fought back, wounding Alligood, and fled while he bled to death. Local, state and federal authorities labeled Little a murderer and fugitive, though activists like Angela Davis spoke out in support of Little, launching the “Free Joan Little” campaign. Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song titled “Joan Little” which became a soundtrack to the movement to support Black women’s right to self-defense. 

More Black women got involved, including Duke University law student Katherine Galloway, who coordinated Little’s legal defense. In Detroit, Rosa Parks organized a “Joan Little Legal Defense Committee.” 

During what some Black leaders called the “trial of the decade” prosecutors attempted to dash Little’s credibility but when additional Black women who had been victims of the Alligood came forward, including Ida Mae Roberson and Phyllis Ann Moore, offered testimony of his history of sexual assault, the jury moved to acquit Joan Little of the charges against her. 

Read more on the details of Little’s trial

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