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53 2 the only one that would be interested in me POLICE BRUTALITY, BLACK WOMEN’S PROTECTION, AND THE NEW YORK RACE RIOT OF 1900 He didn’t say nothing to me; he took hold of me—this officer did. Arthur stepped up before he had a chance. . . . I judge it was about twenty minutes after that that I knew the officer had been injured by some person . . . did I think that Arthur did it . . . yes, because he was the only one there with him and the only one that would be interested in me. —May Enoch, August 22, 1900 According to May Enoch’s statement about the events that took place on August 12, 1900, Arthur Harris had attempted to protect her from a physical assault.1 The act of defending his common-law wife from attack in New York’s Tenderloin district turned into more trouble than either could have ever imagined. Harris saw a white man assault Enoch and responded by confronting the assailant. The subsequent physical altercation between the two men left both Harris and plainclothes police officer Robert Thorpe injured . Two days later, Thorpe died—a white neighborhood cop killed by a black man who had recently migrated to the city. The news set off a race riot as white mobs attacked black residents. “A reign of terror” of this magnitude , one newspaper explained, had not been seen since the Civil War, when white mobs enraged by the imposition of the draft terrorized black men, women, and children.2 In analyzing the 1900 disturbance, this chapter explores how black women’s problematic encounters with police officers became the catalyst that inflamed existing tensions between black and white Tenderloin residents.3 The objective here is to facilitate a more nuanced understanding of how working-class women and men relied on the language of respectability to reconfigure their relationship to the state, par- 54 AFRICAN AMERICAN URBAN LIFE ticularly its legal arm, to challenge myopic portrayals of the black urban body politic as innately criminal, and to enhance their life chances and experiences in a racially repressive society. A central theme of this chapter emphasizes the ways in which black working women’s defense of their civil and human rights put them at odds with the state, white society, the black elite, and black working men. Taking seriously black women’s experiences of urban violence and their need for protection expands our understanding of the riot’s multifaceted meanings and consequences. This perspective emphasizes black New Yorkers’ repeated demands for individual and community protection, as well as their efforts to link working-class respectability and first-class citizenship rights.4 May Enoch and Robert Thorpe’s confrontation and Thorpe and Arthur Harris’s altercation illuminate urban communities’ and black women’s responses to physical violence and police brutality.5 Black New Yorkers routinely experienced problems with police officers, ranging from apathy and lack of protection to set-ups and harassment. In particular, policemen assaulted working-class women and especially black women like May Enoch with impunity.6 Regardless of their socioeconomic status, black women struggled to be treated civilly and recognized as respectable. On more than a few occasions, their quest for respectable status and, by extension, the protections of first-class citizenship was aided by men such as Arthur Harris, who based their manhood on their ability to safeguard black women, themselves , and their community. Concerns about the protection of black women were central to male leaders’ ideas about racial advancement, yet directly addressing the experiences of black women in the city presented complex challenges. Living in a society in which all blacks were characterized as inferior and uncivilized, black leaders consistently sought to counter those images, especially as they related to masculinity and femininity, by emphasizing black people’s adherence to appropriate behavior. In this sense, the black elite distinguished themselves from the working poor and positioned themselves as race leaders by arguing that they needed to uplift the masses. Racial uplift ideology stressed “self-help, racial solidarity, temperance, thrift, chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority, and the accumulation of wealth,” yet respectability was deemed a key element in racial advancement, especially for women.7 The politics of respectability, through focused attention to public displays of decorum, was thought to help prevent assaults on black women’s bodies and character.Yet, as scholar Elsa Barkley Brown notes, “the struggle to present Black women and the Black community as ‘respectable’ eventually led to repression within the community...


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