The “Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Virginia Christian”: Southern Black Women, Crime & Punishment in Progressive Era Virginia
Abstract

Abstract:

In 1912, sixteen-year-old Hampton, Virginia resident and laundress Virginia Christian killed her white employer: fifty-one year-old widow and mother Ida Belote. Contributing to the expanding historical scholarship on African American women, this essay employs Christian’s life as a window into the lived experiences of some southern working-class black women during the early twentieth century. It critically interrogates Christian’s experiences as a household laborer, her murder trial and execution, and her use of lethal violence as a survival and resistance strategy against race oppression, labor exploitation, and white violence. Christian’s compelling life account and the diverse ways in which she and other southern working-poor African American women experienced and confronted Jim Crow segregation warrants more attention from scholars. At the same time, Christian’s distressing narrative is one that “disrupts those canonical discourses that have too often rendered African American women invisible.” Additionally, this article investigates a diverse yet significant group of African American and white Progressive era political activists’ efforts to save Christian from capital punishment. Appalled by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s decision to condemn a sixteen year-old girl to the electric chair, early twentieth century era anti-racist reformers appealed to state politicians in hopes of getting Christian’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.