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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.4 (2005) 479-482

Reviewed by
Michael J. Pfeifer
Evergreen State College
Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South. By Diane Miller Sommerville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 432. $59.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

In this well-written and tightly argued monograph Diane Miller Sommerville closely examines rape trials in nineteenth-century Virginia and North Carolina. Meticulously combing appellate and lower court records and governors' pardon papers, among other sources, Sommerville adds complexity and nuance to our understanding of race and sexuality in the American South in the decades before and after the emancipation of the slaves. She skillfully demonstrates that draconian statutes prescribing execution or castration were only one aspect, albeit an important one, of a continuum of antebellum southern white responses to accusations that African American men had raped white women. She also establishes, supporting other recent historians such as Martha Hodes, that interracial sexual taboos in the South separating black men and white women, and the violence, often extralegal, that backed those proscriptions, emerged in the late nineteenth century rather than in the racial regime of slavery.

The most persuasive analysis in the book involves Sommerville's close reading and perceptive description of antebellum rape trials. She shows that in a number of cases slaveholders mustered considerable legal resources to defend slave men accused of rape. Often appellate courts, staffed by elite male jurists who demonstrated a paternal "gendered identification with the black men accused of rape" (15), overturned the verdicts of local courts, voicing concern over local prejudices and stressing the need to provide legal fairness. Defense lawyers impeached the credibility and sexual reputation of the lower-class women who brought rape charges against African American men. Black men accused of raping white women in the antebellum South were sometimes acquitted or were spared execution in favor of sale and transportation out of state. About half of the 150 black men sentenced to death for sexually assaulting white women or children in Virginia between 1800 and 1865 avoided execution. Sommerville believes that these statistics indicate a certain degree of flexibility in southern white attitudes concerning race and sex before the Civil War (14). [End Page 479]

Sommerville highlights the salience of class divisions among whites, as opposed to a generalized impulse toward white solidarity, in these rape cases. Lower-class whites might rally around a female accuser and threaten mob violence or, atypically, resort to it, whereas elite slaveholders often defended the accused slave male. However, Sommerville suggests that instances of elite white women accusing black men of rape were less likely to make it to court and more likely to be settled through private retribution. Accusations of the rape of white children by black men also tended to bring a harsher response, although the testimony and history of girl accusers was sometimes treated with careful scrutiny and skepticism. Sommerville argues that these patterns, which were also evident in antebellum cases of free black men accused of the rape of white women, persisted until the end of the Civil War and, to some degree, through the post-Reconstruction era of the 1880s. She finds, however, a decisive shift in the 1890s due to a variety of social, political, and cultural changes that precipitated a cultural discourse emphasizing and vilifying the sexual appetite of black men for white women. As the legal definition of rape expanded and black men convicted of rape in some southern states faced a legal penalty of execution, a frenzy of lynching surged across the South. In this atmosphere, Sommerville asserts in an extended appendix examining the origins and historiography of the "rape myth," white southern historians such as William Archibald Dunning argued that African American men turned to the rape of white women in the Reconstruction era as blacks sought to expand the political rights they had been granted by northern Republicans into full "social equality" (236). In 1968 Winthrop Jordan, building on the neo-Freudian interpretations of the...


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