The Gendered Anatomy of “Negro Crime”

The following is an excerpt from Talitha L. LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South.

In 1868, the state of Georgia began to make its rapidly growing population of prisoners available for hire. The resulting convict leasing system ensnared not only men but also African American women, who were forced to labor in camps and factories to make profits for private investors. In this vivid work of history, Talitha L. LeFlouria draws from a rich array of primary sources to piece together the stories of these women, recounting what they endured in Georgia’s prison system and what their labor accomplished. LeFlouria argues that African American women’s presence within the convict lease and chain-gang systems of Georgia helped to modernize the South by creating a new and dynamic set of skills for black women. At the same time, female inmates struggled to resist physical and sexual exploitation and to preserve their human dignity within a hostile climate of terror. This revealing history redefines the social context of black women’s lives and labor in the New South and allows their stories to be told for the first time.

LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence was featured recently on one of our Women’s History Month 2022 reading lists, curated by our Sales Manager Susan Garrett.

At the Rising Fawn prison mine, tucked away in the foothills of Dade County, Carrie Massie, “a sixteen-year-old Negro girl,” built her home in the depths of despair. The young woman’s ordeal began in 1882, when she was convicted of murdering William Evans, a well-known owner of a general store in the town of Summerfield near Macon, Georgia. On the night of the killing, Bill Carstarphen, a black man, heard groans emanating from the shop. He roused the neighborhood and convened a small posse to guard the store. When members of the crowd forced the door open, “a ghastly sight met their view.” Mr. Evans was lying on a bed in the rear of the building. His head was “crushed in as if by several blows of an axe, and the bed clothes fearfully saturated with this blood.”

The small crowd combed every corner of the store looking for Evans’s assailant. Carrie Massie was reportedly discovered “hid away beside a pile of shucks. She was pulled out of her hiding place, and her apron and bonnet were found to be spotted with blood.” News of the murder spread swiftly throughout the community. A large mob assembled at the scene of the killing, and a proposition was made to lynch Massie. However, the “calm voice of a minister of the gospel was heard and the mob reluctantly abandoned the project.”

Sheriff Wolcott escorted Massie to the county jail, where a reporter was standing by to collect a statement from the sixteen-year-old girl about the murder. “What made you kill him?” asked the journalist. “I didn’t kill him. I don’t know nothing about it . . . I ain’t killed nobody,” replied Massie.

She went on to explain:

I went away from Macon last night on the train, and you can ask the conductor if I didn’t. I got off there at Summerfield, and I was going to see some people that I knowed. It was so dark and cold that I didn’t want to be out there in the woods by myself, so I goes to Mr. Evans’ store and knocks. Mr. Evans comes to the door, and I tells him that I want to come in and stay til morning . . . When the train came by [about three o’clock] I saw a man strike a match. I thought he was in the store all the time, and after awhile I heard the licks on Mr. Evans and heard him say “oh Lord.” Then I heard somebody on the outside, and I was so scared I didn’t know what to do. When daylight came I heard the crowd outside say they would kill the first person that came out of the store and I hid behind the shucks, and that’s all I know about it.

Massie’s declaration of innocence fell on deaf ears. Recognizing the hopeless nature of her circumstances, she challenged authorities to “just do what you please with me—I don’t care.” Notwithstanding the fact that, prior to her indictment, she had never been accused (let alone convicted) of committing or conspiring to commit any act of violence, the young woman was forced to exchange her bloodstained dress for a striped one and to toil in Georgia’s ruthless convict lease system.

Carrie Massie’s ordeal is part of a larger story of black women’s suffering in the post–Civil War South. Freedwomen and their daughters’ lives were broadly circumscribed by racial hostility, violence, terror, poverty, and exclusion. The confluence of these menacing social and economic forces, combined with a predatory legal establishment, fostered a fertile environment for notions of black female crime to emerge. During this era, rising criminal delinquency, whether real or imagined, provoked a heightened degree of speculation and anxiety among white sheriffs, magistrates, politicians, anthropologists, criminologists, physicians, and “common folks” eager to diagnose and treat the universal cause(s) of Negro criminality.

The body of “Negro crime”—a wicked subcategory of race-based criminality—was first autopsied by white ideologues whose dubious conclusions exposed racial and gendered prejudices and a desire to create causal links between the Negro’s moral, mental, sexual, and biological “inferiorities” and his or her “inherent” predisposition toward delinquency. Although rhetorically and literarily centered, racist doctrine played an influential role in feeding white southerners’ mounting public obsessions over the proliferation of “Negro crime,” and it was a persuasive tool used to promote and rationalize the mass imprisonment of ex-slaves and their progeny after the Civil War.

During the same time that white “truth seekers” picked and probed to discover and authenticate a racialized basis for black criminality, African American social scientists such as W. E. B. Du Bois sliced through thick layers of fabricated data. They found that misdiagnoses of inborn criminal deviance and hereditary debauchery rested beneath what black intellectuals and reformers, including women, considered to be the true causes of Negro criminality: poverty; racism; lack of social, political, and economic opportunity; depraved social surroundings; and the consuming effects of “strong drink.” Even so, in the midst of this complex and protracted effort to expose the infectious root of “Negro crime,” poor working-class black women in Georgia desperately fought to survive and fashion their lives anew in the “empire state” of the New South.

Talitha L. LeFlouria is associate professor of African American Studies in the Carter G. Woodson Institute, University of Virginia. Her research was featured in the documentary Slavery by Another Name, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book.