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Reviewed by:
  • Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South
  • Stephanie Cole
Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South. By Diane Miller Sommerville. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 432. Cloth $59.95; paper $24.95.)

In Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South, Diane Miller Sommerville develops a theme common to Southern women's history currently, that the slave South was about more than just race, and that the boundaries of gender and class were particularly important in shaping Southern society throughout the century. Sommerville demonstrates that at the community level, the elite men who presided over charges of black men's sexual assaults on white women were concerned less with fears of racial aggression than with conserving property in slaves and maintaining the line between poor white—and therefore morally suspect—women and their elite counterparts. She contends that only after Reconstruction eroded the faith of whites in Southern courts did white Southerners move to deal with accusations of black rape extralegally and give any credence to images of black male potency and threat. Although her argument is similar to that of historians Martha Hodes and Peter Bardaglio, Sommerville offers a valuable innovation—a close examination of local trial records and community petitions to governors concerning convicted rapists, mainly from Virginia and North Carolina. From Sommerville's perspective (and this reviewer's), the views of ordinary men, rather than the more familiar sources of attitudes toward rape [End Page 67] (legislators, public intellectuals, and appellate court justices), do a better job of revealing the nuances of black-white relations.

In the local cases Sommerville explores, misogynist attitudes about loose lower-class women meant that the myth of the "black beast rapist" was rarely a factor, at least until the 1880s. Here Sommerville takes on a long line of Southern historians, including Winthrop Jordan, who have argued that white Southerners had an abiding fear of black male sexuality. But Sommerville has abundant evidence from petitioners asking for clemency for men convicted of, and almost certainly guilty of, violent sexual assaults on white women and girls. Moreover, she effectively demonstrates that eighteenth-century laws calling for castration for convicted black rapists were fixed on not because of the sexual connotation, but rather as a method of control short of capital punishment, which required state restitution.

Sommerville's investigation of the support of white men for slaves who had been convicted of raping even young white girls is startling. She finds that paternalism, as much as economic interests, motivated these petitions. Although men convicted of rape were more likely to hang than those accused of assaulting adult women, and almost certain to do so if the victim was the master's child, they had their sentences commuted or overturned significantly more often than would be expected, given the demands of honor to protect defenseless females. Clearly elites felt paternalistic obligations to slaves as well and wanted to give them the benefit of blind justice. Close oversight of child rape cases was especially necessary, courts believed, in light of accusers' youth and lower-class origins, which made their claims suspect, and their willingness and ability to say no doubtful.

Sommerville frequently discovers such transcendent misogyny among her subjects. In a chapter on free black cases, she reveals that those who had skills beneficial to the white community, or the luck to have attacked a woman with a suspicious reputation, received the same level of protection by the courts and petitioners as those whose hanging would have cost a slave owner some money. Poor women were particularly vulnerable. Most were assumed to lack restraint, but those who had ever had voluntary relations with black men—of whom there were abundant numbers—found it almost impossible to have their claim that they had refused relations on the occasion of the alleged attack believed. Moreover, these women were more likely to find themselves in court than elite women because their work routines left them at risk to be alone in public areas. Elite women, whose reputations would be threatened by a sexual assault, probably failed to report attacks that did occur. [End Page 68]

Sommerville's final chapters on wartime...


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