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  • From Slavery to Jane Crow to Say Her Name:An Intersectional Examination of Black Women and Punishment

“From Slavery to Jane Crow to Say Her Name” examines the ongoing social movement in the United States by Black women activists and intellectuals from as early as the nineteenth century to present day contemporary movements and campaigns such as Say Her Name, which began in 2015, which explores the the lives and experiences of Black women who have been victims of State violence. This discussion has been sweeping across the nation in an effort to address the plight of Black women who continue to lack social and legal protection in the criminal legal system (specifically regarding the punishment of Black women). The article highlights both legal and extrajudicial punishment of Black women, from the nineteenth century, directly examining state executions and the lack of legal protection, as evidenced by the courts response to resistance as an act of self-defense, demonstrating how Black enslaved women were punished in a way that illustrated a lack of validation of their womanhood, while concluding with an examination of violence against Black women, with scant attention and understanding of their experiences with police brutality An examination of a collection of ideas and speeches from nineteenth century Black intellectual activists Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Victoria Earle Matthews explores the ways in which these women used writing and intellectual activism to galvanize social movements for the Black community and Black women in particular. At the core of this discussion is an intense look at the relationship between Black women’s activism against social and legal injustices and the disparaging treatment of Black women within the criminal legal system. [End Page 109]


In every generation, there is a struggle to improve the social, political, and economic conditions of communities most marginalized by social and systemic injustices in the United States. Scholar activist Mary Church Terrell argued in 1904 that “hanging, shooting, and burning black men, women, and children in the United States have become so common that such occurrences created but little sensation and evoke but slight comment now.” In the wake of the extrajudicial killings of Black men that have garnered national attention since 2012 (Ghandnoosh 2015), there has been a movement emerging across the nation to address the plight of Black women who continue to lack social and legal protection in the criminal legal system (Crenshaw, Ocen, and Nanda 2015). The continued dehumanization of Black and Brown bodies, and especially, for the purpose of this paper, Black women, has led scholar activists such as Brittney Cooper to ask the question, “Does anyone care about Black women?” (2014). Cooper (2014) argues that Black women’s narratives are often obscured due to the primary focus on Black male victims. Historically, as today, Black women have been removed from mainstream society’s view, and not valued as “true women.” In fact, the socially constructed ideology of race and gender created in the nineteenth century, labeled “the cult of true womanhood” by Barbara Welter (1966), places a higher value on White women than women of any other race. Black women were not included in this value system, which encouraged submissiveness, piety, domesticity, and purity (Welter 1966). By excluding Black women from social validation, the ideology of “true womanhood” also justified violence against and insufficient legal protection for them. In my examination of the punishment of Black women by the criminal justice system during the nineteenth century, I argue that part of their legal and social disenfranchisement involved the dissemination of negative images in societal discourse and in print. These representations reinforced their inferior legal and social status (Battle 2014).

This essay outlines the specific punishment of Black women, highlighting the disproportionate punishment of lynching, and uses one specific legal case to demonstrate how Black enslaved women were punished in a way that illustrates a lack of validation of their womanhood. [End Page 110] It goes on to examine a collection of ideas and speeches from nineteenth-century Black intellectual activists Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Victoria Earle Matthews. It explores the ways in which these women used writing and intellectual activism to galvanize social movements for the Black community and Black women in particular. Finally, the relationship between Black women’s activism against social and legal injustices and the disparaging treatment of Black women within the criminal legal system is examined.

In response to the social reality of state-sanctioned violence and punishment, Black women incorporated direct actions and ideas within their speeches and writings to promote sociolegal justice in the Black community. Nineteenth-century scholar activist Mary Church Terrell described the intention of the state to maintain an oppressive regime for Blacks, in which laws were reproduced to uphold exploitative wage labor practices, such as the chain gang, in order to keep Black people in constant subjection (Terrell 1907). In the face of this and other challenges, Black women have a longstanding tradition of identifying ways to transform society through sociopolitical thought and activism (Glass 2005). This conscious effort to empower and liberate those most impacted by state-sanctioned violence and poverty from systematic regimes has been the continuous goal of activists and scholars of all genders and races, both historically and in contemporary times.

It is important to examine intellectual activism within both historical and intersectional contexts. In examining how intersectional identities interact with contemporary criminological issues, Hillary Potter (2015) argues that White male-centered theoretical perspectives are inadequate in explaining and creating solutions for girls and women of color because the criminal justice system treats this specific population in quite distinct ways. According to Potter (2015), intersectional criminology allows for the investigation of how an individual’s social realities reflect and operate continuously in tandem based upon their race, class, gender, and additional socially constructed identities within the context of how crime and victimization is studied. Grounding intersectionality historically in criminological studies, or what I refer to as historical intersectional criminology, illustrates the ways in which legal and social injustices have been reproduced in institutional spaces. These reproductions [End Page 111] reflect structural realities and patterns of injustices influenced by social, political, legal policies, and laws that have been used to maintain a White, male, patriarchal order. Contemporary activist scholars can draw from the ideas of historical activist scholars in their efforts to promote social and legal justice. Additionally, by studying the intentional efforts and consciousness-raising work of activists across generational lines, today’s activist scholars can create actions both inside and outside of the classroom to help dismantle White supremacy by envisioning a society that promotes democracy for all groups.

Punishment of Black Women

This section is not intended to provide an exhaustive list of legal cases in which Black women were punished in the criminal legal system; such a cataloguing effort would, indeed, be monumental. Instead, its intention is to provide examples that illustrate how their intersectional identities were responsible for some Black women receiving far harsher treatment than their White counterparts.

De slaves was punished for fights, being late for work, lying, runnin’ away, and stealin. Dey would put you in a stark [stocks]. Your hands and foots was buckled up and you stayed dere for months. No, dey did not hang you. Nebber heard of hangin’ until today like people do. You just got a whippin’. Dey gave you food when you was punished. Yes, some of de master(s) was mean, but dey did not hang anybody. De mean master would tie de slaves to a tree and beat dem to death. Old lady Oater ran away and built a home in de ground. She had six children. De driver caught her one day and whipped her to death. He beat her until her skin fell off and she died. Den he unloosened her from de tree and buried her in de ground in front of de quarters. (Clayton 1942, 102)—ex-slave Elizabeth Ross Rite

The narrative of Elizabeth Ross Rite provides a detailed account of the dehumanizing, and routine, punishment inflicted on Black women during the nineteenth century. Enslaved Black women were disregarded as human beings, and inhumane punishment fit well within the social [End Page 112] norms of slavery at the time. White male privilege allowed White men and women alike to ignore the abuse of Black women as they focused on economic growth, for which they depended on the womanhood of Black women, most notably their forced physical and sexual labor. Grounded in intersectionality, the abuse of Black women highlights the ways in which oppression of women varied based on their race, class, and gender, which is used as an analytical tool to explain social inequality grounded in structural domains of power. The racial and gender privileges that came with the ideals constructed to create “true womanhood” did not benefit enslaved Black women nor free women of color. Four virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity—comprised the doctrine of true womanhood, which was constructed to characterize the proper behavior of White middle class women, holding them to a repressive standard of behavior that suited the needs of White men. As stated previously, Barbara Welter (1966) coined the term “cult of true womanhood” to describe this ideology, which illustrated how the acceptable social traits of women were deeply embedded in society. However, the virtues were only used to describe the role and social status of White women (Carby 1987), as Black women were characterized as having a lower social standing. Black women, in particular enslaved Black women, did not reap the economic benefits of their forced condition. Moreover, enslaved Black women were often blamed for their own forms of victimization and free women of color were often socially characterized by the same negative generalizations of enslaved Black women. These negative socially constructed identities and stereotypes of Black women manifested and progressed in different ways long after slavery ended.

To illustrate the larger principle of how structural oppression is influenced by the construction of race, class, and gender, and how the social construction of race and gender has a bearing on punishment in the legal court system, let us turn to the State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave, a case decided in 1855. McLaurin (1991) provides a detailed account of the social environment and events leading up to the execution of Celia by the state. He pointed to possible political, social, and legal dynamics that contributed to Celia’s death while considering the familial implications in the deaths of both Newsom, Celia’s enslaver, and Celia; these arguments are all couched in a discussion of how the socioeconomic and legal environment [End Page 113] of the time utilized a social ideology based on race, class, and gender. Celia was fourteen years of age when Robert Newsom, a plantation owner in Missouri, purchased her. She lacked the community protection found in many large plantations and therefore was susceptible to all forms of physical transgressions that could be committed against her. The only family she had were two children, born of her two relationships: a coerced sexual relationship with Newsom and a voluntary one with her intimate friend George. George ultimately betrayed her, reporting her to the authorities for killing her master.

On June 23, 1855, Celia confronted her master and pleaded for him to stop his sexual abuse. She had sought out Newsom’s daughters for help, but they did nothing, perhaps having no authority to even try. One evening, Celia repeatedly warned Newsom to leave her alone after he visited her cabin and attempted to rape her. As he leaned toward her, she grabbed a stick and hit him over the head twice, the second blow causing him to fall to the floor. This resulted in his death. Celia then placed Newsom’s body in the fireplace and let him burn overnight until he became ashes. The following day, Newsom’s grandson cleaned the ashes from the fireplace; unbeknownst to the boy, he was cleaning his grandfather’s remains.

The next day, the entire Newsom family, led by family friend William Powell, who took charge of the search party, began to look for Newsom. They all suspected that George, Celia’s lover, had something to do with his death because of his relationship with Celia and also because of his own intersectional identities: he was Black, male, and a slave. After repeated verbal threats and intimidation by the Newsom family, George implicated Celia. The vigilante search group found Celia and interrogated her. Given that she was a Black slave and therefore not subject to the rights of due process, an ordinary plantation owner who held no official authority as a law enforcement agent questioned her. The man likely had a particular interest in this case because he owned a female slave two years younger than Celia; his involvement was undoubtedly an attempt to protect his economic interests and racial supremacy. The vigilante group’s line of questioning was hostile from the start, as Celia was not afforded the protection of the socially constructed ideology that was attached to the [End Page 114] purity of White women only, nor by the legal rights of free persons, much less Whites.

Celia continued to be treated with contempt; her life was repeatedly threatened unless she confessed to murder. Essentially, she was considered guilty until proven innocent, which was in line with the dominant atmosphere of White supremacy of the period. In this context, Celia was placed in a position where she could be punished for not consenting to sexual violence, much less defending herself. After repeated badgering, a White citizen who held no official law enforcement title but decided he would act as the neighborhood watchman by taking the law into his own hands was able to force Celia to break down and confess to the murder of Newsom.

State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave, began on June 25, 1855; while awaiting trial, Celia was imprisoned in the Fulton Township prison. The case garnered considerable local attention in the social and political climate of that time, which included slave insurrections and uprisings. The White community feared that the death of Newsom was the action of a group. Based on her physical stature as a woman, it was not believed that Celia could have had the strength to pick Newsom up and place him in the fireplace. Both slaveholders and the general White population alike feared for their lives, petrified of experiencing retaliation for the physical abuse they inflicted upon their slaves. It was in this climate of White anxiety that Celia would finally have her day in court with Judge William Augustus Hall. Her trial was quite significant at the time, as it reflected the changing legal and social status of Blacks.

The defense instructed the jury to find Celia not guilty if they found that she killed Newsom “without deliberation and premeditation, and in the heat of passion” (McLaurin 1991, 106). Those instructions were intended to help build the case of self-defense for Celia, since, as in most Southern states, she could not testify on her own behalf against any White person. However, the instructions were objected to and the objection was sustained. The judge upheld every objection that would defuse the defense’s attempt to pose any type of threat or challenge to the system of maintaining property and racial supremacy.

Celia’s lawyer attempted to argue that Celia was allowed by law to protect herself from harm, citing the 1845 Missouri statute that “made [End Page 115] it a crime to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace, or duress, compel her to be defiled” (McLaurin 1991, 107). The specific language used by the defense was that Celia had the right to protect her honor. Under the ideology of the cult of true womanhood, however, Black women, who were generally all enslaved, held no honor. They were part of a larger social system that exploited, abused, and punished them based on the ideals of racial superiority and maintaining White privilege.

Black women never received the benefit of the doubt when it pertained to their sexuality. The prosecution insisted on referring to the continual rape of Celia as consensual sex. The prosecution informed the jury that Celia had no right to kill Newsom, “if Newsom was in the habit of having intercourse with the defendant who was his slave and went to her cabin on the night he was killed to have intercourse with her or for any other purpose” (McLaurin 1991, 109). When the prosecution directly instructed the jury to note that “there is no evidence before the jury that [Celia] was acting in self-defense” (McLaurin 1991,109), the defense objected, but it was not sustained by the judge. This allowance confirmed Black women as disregarded objects, subject to treatment beyond the law due to the social order of Southern society. The law ensured a clear schism between White and Black women with the same social standing. Accepting the defense’s argument that Black women were automatically permitted to protect their honor suggested they were equal to White women and therefore jeopardized the entire racial hierarchy in place at the time. It was White women who embodied the natural traits of “true womanhood,” symbolizing the institutional beliefs of ownership and White supremacy. Acknowledging that Celia had any right to protect her own body was to recognize the humanity of Black women, which was counterproductive to the goal of exploiting them as property.

On the night of November 11, 1855, Celia, along with another inmate, escaped the Callaway County jail. As the White community was highly divided over the presumptions and injustice of the case, it was assumed someone helped Celia escape. She was recaptured and sent to prison to await her execution. Before the night of her execution, her last words were recorded to be: “as soon as I struck him the Devil got into me, and I struck him with the stick until he was dead, and then rolled him in the fire [End Page 116] and burnt him up” (McLaurin 1991, 135). The following afternoon, Celia marched to the gallows and was executed.

To understand the degree of punishment faced by Black women in the South, one need only recognize the over-representation of Black women who faced capital punishment, compared to White women. This skewed ratio is visible across historical periods: Young provided a clear analysis of the relationship between intersectionality and capital punishment during the colonial period (Young and Spencer 1999), while Kerry Segrave’s (2008) seminal work on the execution of women in America from 1840–1899 also highlights sentencing disparities among women. While neither these works nor this essay are intended to be a thorough examination of executions, it is important to highlight punishment disparities for future investigation.

An analysis of executions of women from 1840–1850 illustrates that Black women were punished at a higher rate than White women; thirty-eight (38) Black women were executed, compared to six (6) White women and one Hispanic woman. While several of their stories are not described in detail in the literature, the nature of their crimes, such as poisoning and arson, could lead one to deduce that they were likely a result of resistance against slavery. In the 1860s, fourteen (14) Black women were executed, compared to five (5) White women and two (2) Hispanic women. Executions of women in the 1870s significantly dropped, with three Black women and one White woman being the only executions documented. The 1880s and 1890s represent the only two decades in which there were an almost equal number of executions of Black and White women. In the 1880s, Black women were executed eight times, and White women represented five of the executions ordered by the government. During the 1890s, Black women comprised six of the government-ordered executions whereas five White women were executed. Although the crimes committed by Black and White women were often similar, i.e. murder, it is important to understand that socioeconomic and political variables led to sentencing disparities between the two racial groups. Black people were under constant threat of racialized laws, such as the Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws, which were specifically created to maintain their social and legal inferiority. Motivations for the crimes committed by Black and White women may or may not have had the same implications after the [End Page 117] dissolution of slavery, but this historical analysis clearly shows that Black women were punished at a higher rate than White women.

Black Women Intellectual Activists

Anna Julia Cooper, born into slavery in the nineteenth century, was a public intellectual and leader in race and gender thinking who associated the development of womanhood and justice with the achievement of higher education. She believed that education was the primary tool through which Black women and young girls would learn proper refinement and etiquette, essential to being seen as an upstanding woman of social standing. Yet Cooper did not equate social equality with attempting to mirror the characteristics and behavior of White women; rather, she concentrated on gaining human rights and dignity by highlighting the strength of Black women. Cooper was firm in her belief in the power of Black women’s narratives. She recognized the need to have once-silenced voices heard and understood, and she critiqued what in contemporary language could be described as the White male patriarchal capitalist system, arguing that Black womanhood would be “the vital agency for social and political change in America” (Cooper 1988, xxxi). Not only was Cooper instrumental in providing a voice for the collective experiences of women in the South by placing Black women at the center of analysis, she also highlighted the importance of the relationship between the Black community, its culture, and the overall development and progress of Black women. Demonstrating her conviction in the need for these elements to develop and flourish together, Cooper would go on to establish the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892 and would eventually open a YWCA chapter for Black women based on their exclusion from this organization years prior (

In her speech “Woman Versus the Indian” in 1892, Cooper took a more direct approach in her critique and criticism of the foundations of social injustice in the South. She did not place discriminatory practices, such as ejection from railroad cars, within the concept of social inequality. Instead, she called the treatment of Black women violent, and asserted that it was punishment based on their social position at the intersection [End Page 118] of race, class, and gender. Cooper suggested that Southern society chose to criminalize Black people based on the socially constructed realities of their marginalized positions. She stated, “bullies are always cowards at heart and may be credited with a pretty safe instinct in scenting their prey” (Cooper 1892, 92). Cooper provided an analysis of social equality that did not make excuses for the plight of White women who found themselves in a position where their interests were governed by the racial privilege protecting them. Referring to White women, Cooper stated, “[they have] honestly weighed the apparently sincere excuse, ‘but you must remember that these people were once our slaves;’ and that other, ‘but civility towards the Negroes will bring on us social equality with them’” (Cooper 1988, 100). Like Black feminist criminologists, she maintained that social structural oppression embedded in Southern ideals was effective at keeping the general population ignorant and, thus, downtrodden (Potter 2006). Cooper stressed education as a tool for seeking justice because she equated it with liberation.

I grant you that intellectual development, with the self-reliance and capacity for earning a livelihood which it gives, renders woman less dependent on the marriage relationship for physical support (which, by the way, does not always accompany it). Neither is she compelled to look to sexual love as the one sensation capable of giving tone and relish, movement and vim to the life she leads. Her horizon is extended. Her sympathies are broadened and deepened and multiplied.

She understood the designed criminal legal system that created laws by which certain groups were criminalized for their race, class, or gender. Indeed, Cooper conceptualized how institutional racism created an environment in which a heightened apparatus of the social control of the Black community was deemed normal and necessary. In such a system, the act of self-determination by those in the Black community who sought to learn through reading and writing, which likely served as a functional tool of liberation and empowerment, would frequently lead to their criminalization. Cooper advocated for racial understanding and attempted to disassociate respectability from race and gender. She reminded her audience that improper behavior is not biologically determined, but socially [End Page 119] constructed and sanctioned by the law, and urged them to cast aside their historical prejudices in light of the new laws of emancipation:

For two hundred and fifty years he trained to his hand a people whom he made absolutely his own, in body, mind, and sensibility. … But when a law has passed and received the sanction of the land, there is nothing for our officials to do but enforce it till repealed.

Cooper suggested that society should move away from constructed realities at the intersection of race, class, and gender and observed that, ultimately, justice occurs when women have their voices validated. She stated, “it is not the intelligent woman versus the ignorant woman; nor the white woman versus the black, the brown, and the red—it is not even the cause of woman versus man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice” (Cooper 1988, 121). Given the outlet to speak, Cooper maintained that women held the power to reshape the vision of society.

“The Status of Woman in America”: 1892

Cooper analyzed the position of Black women in the United States and acknowledged oppression from the intersectional identities of race and gender. She went further in outlining the distinct opposing social forces in the lives of Black women and White women. Cooper suggested that when Black women attempt to undertake some of the same goals and traverse the same avenues as White Women, they are banished, whereas White women are applauded:

While the women of the white race can with calm assurance enter upon the work they feel by nature appointed to do, while their men give loyal support and appreciative countenance to their efforts, recognizing in most avenues of usefulness the propriety and the need of woman’s distinctive co-operation, the colored woman too often finds herself hampered and shamed by a less liberal sentiment and a more conservative attitude on the part of those for whose opinion she cares most.

This is interesting because, as argued in Bert Landry’s work (2002), it was actually Black women who set the standard for how an egalitarian family system would operate, as their families were more likely to have working [End Page 120] wives. Moreover, while existing in a White, male, patriarchal society, Black and White women both found themselves negotiating social spaces in order to promote the collective interests of their families. However, a doublebind of intersectional oppression of both race and gender placed Black women in a unique position that often placed a responsibility upon them to share a collective standpoint for their family and racial community. Cooper complicated this reality, stating, “the woman of to-day finds herself in the presence of responsibilities which ramify through the profoundest and most varied interests of her country and race. (Cooper 1988, 142). “But to be a woman of the Negro race in America, and to be able to grasp the deep significance of the possibilities of the crisis, is to have a heritage, it seems to me, unique in the ages” (Cooper 1988, 144). (Cooper 1988, 142, 144). Though a key figure in the effort to humanize and validate Black women’s experience, Cooper was not the only one to work in this area. As we shall see, other Black women public intellectuals also weighed in on ways to rebuild a community under systematic attack socially, politically, and legally.

The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation

Fannie Barrier Williams , 1893

Fannie Barrier Williams was born in New York in 1855 to parents described as pioneer citizens. She learned the importance of education early in her life and attended the Collegiate Institute of Brockport, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the School of Fine Arts. Like Cooper, Williams was a spokesperson for several women’s organizations (Loewenberg and Bogin 1976). Also like Cooper, she publicly noted the anticipated outcomes of the change in social policy from enslavement to Emancipation. In doing so, she acknowledged that Black women were embarking upon a completely new terrain. Williams stated, “How few of the happy, prosperous, and eager living Americans can appreciate what it all means to be suddenly changed from irresponsible bondage to the responsibility of freedom and citizenship!” (Logan 1995, 106). Williams provided an analysis that placed the lives and experiences of Black women during the nineteenth century in their social context. Black women had not [End Page 121] previously been in control of their own bodies or lives, but now were being placed in a position of freedom in which they had to adapt to a different type of environment and social standards. In sharing the damaging effects of negative stereotypes emerging from social structural oppression, Williams encouraged society to reshape its negative, controlling images of Black women as a collective population. Like Cooper, Williams believed that justice could occur now that Blacks were afforded the opportunity to have an education. In particular, she interconnected education with the organization of women who could serve as leaders to promote justice:

The power of organized womanhood is one of the most interesting studies of modern sociology. Now their liberal intelligence, their contract in all the great interests of education, and their increasing influence for good in all the great reformatory movements of the age has created in them a greater respect for each other, and furnished the elements of organization for large and splendid purposes.

This quote illustrates the importance of organization to Williams in building the Black community, as it would likely raise consciousness to envision a transformative society that would promote social justice for all people. Williams acknowledged the mental strength of formerly enslaved Black people, stating, “It is a great wonder that two centuries of such demoralization did not work a complete extinction of all the moral instincts” (Loewenberg and Bogin 1976, 274). She promoted the idea of respectability politics by encouraging Black women to continue to rise above their oppressive conditions, as they had during enslavement. While Black women may not have been considered to embody piety, one of the characteristics of the cult of true womanhood, Williams understood that Black women held a legacy of being religious: “It is the young women of a new generation and new inspirations that are making tramps of the ministers who once dominated the colored church, and whose intelligence and piety were mostly in their lungs” (Loewenberg and Bogin 1976, 272).

Williams exhorted communities to come together and to move past resentment at their former condition—or current experience of injustice. “The hearts of Afro-American women are too warm and too large for race hatred. Long suffering has so chastened them that they are developing [End Page 122] a special sense of sympathy for all who suffer and fail of justice (Logan 1995, 111).” Here Williams declared Black people as Afro-American and attempted to reassure the White community that there was no possibility of an insurrection motivated by racial tensions. This was a major concern during the post-bellum period, and it is possible that Williams did not want Black women to face the burden of carrying a deviant image. She also acknowledged the awareness and attitudes that Black women held toward the legal justice system. In noting the suffering of and lack of justice for Black people, Williams also implied that Black women understood their lack of protection based on their race, class, and gender.

Williams differentiated punishment in the South compared to the North in American society. She suggested that the atrocities faced by Black women in the South placed them in a unique position of being morally degraded, influencing their productive conditions and distinct labor positions as slaves. She connects institutional oppression to the development of a negative image of Black women:

It is proper to state, with as much emphasis as possible, that all questions relative to the moral progress of the colored women of America are impertinent and unjustly suggestive when they relate to the thousands of colored women in the North who were free from the vicious influences of slavery.

“The Awakening of the Afro -American Woman”: 1897

Victoria Earle Matthews was one of the first nineteenth-century Black women intellectual activists to raise awareness of how Black women were punished based on their constructed racial and social categories. She addressed how the social construction of race and gender was embedded in the law with the purpose of maintaining White male privilege. Indeed, Matthews was one of the first Black women intellectual activists of the nineteenth century to argue that constructed intersectional identities in America contributed to the legalization of Black female inequality.

Matthews—like Maria W. Stewart, who was the first Black woman political writer in the United States—lived in the North but worked for the overall improvement of the Black race regardless of demographic settlement. In “The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman,” Matthews argued that freedom provided the opportunity for Black [End Page 123] women to explore their intellectual and moral capabilities in society. After being physically and psychologically abused under a social system in which they rarely could escape, formerly enslaved women could seemingly live their lives more or less unencumbered. Moving from years of abuse to freedom was a welcomed social change, but one that needed to be defined. Black women would need to recondition their minds and learn how to navigate social spaces as free women, upholding their dignity after decades of negative social stigmas. Matthews did just that by encouraging Black women to awaken, suggesting that raising their social consciousness could promote the liberation they had never before experienced. A new life meant reconstructing a positive Black social image for womanhood.

In this era, the dominant social structures would continue to perceive and depict Black women with controlling images that oppressed them (Collins 1994). However, Matthews suggested that the awakening of Black womanhood would erase the years of normalizing degradation and punishment of Black women. In doing so, Matthews suggested that “above all we need their assistance in combating the public opinion and laws that degrade our womanhood because it is Black and not White; for of a truth, and as a universal law, an injury to one woman is an injury to all women” (Logan, 1995, 154). Matthews’s view on the consciousness-raising of Black women as a tool of empowerment from the systemic effort and practices that disregarded their humanity is invoked in part of a speech in which she discussed the long-term consequences of slavery:

Life is the most mysterious as it is the most revealed force in nature. Death does not compare with it in these qualities, for there can be no death without life. It is from this point of view that we must regard the tremendous awakening of the Afro-American womanhood during the past three decades from the double night of ages of slavery in which it was locked in intellectual and moral eclipse. It has been the awakening of a race from the nightmare of 250 years of self-effacement and debasement.

Even in the “new order” of emancipation, formerly enslaved Black women would continue to feel the lingering effects of being viewed not only as property, but chattel property. But Matthews essentially argued that life [End Page 124] evolves, and at that particular time, Black women were in the position to live their lives differently. When one considers the psychological and physical abuse formerly enslaved Black women faced, Matthews’ views were realistic, in that Black women were capable of this kind of awakening in spite of their often horrific treatment. They had been trapped in a position in which they could not afford to pay for their freedom and, as such, were socially and legally defined as “Other.” These women did not reap the benefits of the cult of true womanhood, so they had little conception of what it could be like to live a real life. To live life each day unaware of what form of punishment you would receive that particular day had to have been close to a nightmare, as Matthews suggested.

Matthews also described the way in which social structural oppression was designed to shape a negative social image of Black women, as well as to harm their self-perception. She spoke against the ways in which Black women were punished as if they were men, completely invalidating their claim to womanhood, as she charged the criminal legal system to undertake, “the reformation of the penal institutions of the Southern States, for the separation of male and female convicts.” (Logan 1995, 155) Matthews was also a staunch advocate for juvenile rights and pointed out that Black juveniles were also treated like adults, unlike their White counterparts.

Matthews provided insightful analyses on the relationship between punishment and intersectionality during the nineteenth century. She called for the legalization of Black female equality and argued that Black women were punished both socially and legally because of their race. Matthews also encouraged White women to increase their awareness of how the construct of gender impacted them both. As stated earlier, the cult of true womanhood posited that there were inherent differences between White and Black women. Social and systemic institutions ensured that Black and White women held different types of social, political, and legal interests, yet they were both subjected to economic subjugation. Both groups were considered property, although based on vastly different social views and assumptions. Matthews urged White women to think of their similarities with the oppression of Black women, rather than the differences that might exist between them.

The excerpt below by Matthews addresses how the laws of American society were created to maintain White male privilege. Matthews [End Page 125] lamented that laws did not protect Black women, whose position required that they actively pursue justice on their own. She then appealed to the religiosity of White women, attempting to gain their support for social and legal protection in American society. From this 1897 speech, it is clear is that while the legal status of Black women had changed, the beliefs of the constructed ideology of the cult of true womanhood remained the same.

As the laws now stand, they are the greatest demoralizing forces with which our womanhood has to contend. They serve as the protection of the White man, but they leave us defenseless; indeed, I ask the Christian womanhood of this great organized Army of Christ to lend us their active co-operation in coercing the lawmakers of the land in throwing around our womanhood the equal protection of the State to which it is entitled.

The role of Black race women during the nineteenth century centered around the uplift and improvement of the Black community. The Black woman as an individual faced challenges and social experiences that undoubtedly connected her tightly to the Black community. As such, Black women activists, teachers, and intellectuals during the post-bellum period considered it their duty to promote progress for the next generation. Part of improving the lot of the Black community involved changing how the legal system treated them. Matthews, in particular, argued that Black people were criminalized because of their race (Muhammad 2010) and illustrated the distinctions between the levels of punishment that were normalized based on the race, class, and gender of an individual:

I am moved here further to invoke your patience and sympathy in the efforts of our awakening womanhood to care for the aged and infirm, for the orphan and outcast; or the reformation of the penal institutions of the Southern States, for the separation of male and female convicts, and above all for the establishment of juvenile reformatories [in] those States for both races, to the end that the shame of it may be removed that children of tender age should be herded with hardened criminals from whose life all of moral sensibility has vanished forever.

(Logan 1995, 155) [End Page 126]

Matthews spoke to the direct exclusion of Black women from the ideals of the cult of true womanhood in American society. She also confirmed Carby’s (1987) argument that there was no distinct sisterhood between Black and White women. Not only did she suggest the absence of a shared bond between Black and White women, Matthews seemed to also imply that White women were complicit with the punishing treatment Black women received:

No Spartan mother ever acquitted herself more heroically than this Afro-American woman has done. She has done it almost without any assistance from her White sister; who, in too large a sense, has left her to work out her own destiny in fear and trembling. […] If there had been no other awakening than this, if this woman who stood upon the auction block possessed of no rights that a White man was bound to respect, and none which he did respect, if there had been no other awakening of the Afro-American woman than this, that she made a home for her race, and abiding place for husband, and son, and daughter, it would be glory enough to embalm her memory in song and story.

Matthews examined the lack of social and legal protection faced by enslaved Black women who had no control over the rights of their own bodies. By saying that White men were not bound to respect the rights of an enslaved Black woman exploited on the auction block, she also provided insight into how the law treated Black women. The laws that were designed to uphold and maintain the system of White supremacy protected White men, rather than upholding the dignity and humanity of Black women.

At the core of the mission of race women1, and a central characterization of culture within the Black community, was the responsibility to raise consciousness and advocate for the social justice of those most marginalized. Even in examining the Black woman as an individual with shared common experiences with other Black women, the goal is for the collective improvement of the entire community. One effective strategy used by Black women to promote social justice and the uplift of the Black community was to train and encourage Black educators. As argued by Shirley J. Carlson (1992), the Black community viewed teachers as role models contributing to the progressive development of individuals in the Black community. Matthews made this same argument in the nineteenth century by maintaining that Black schoolteachers were the “hope and inspiration of the whole race” (Logan 1995, 153). [End Page 127]

Continuing Impact

As stated in the title of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s project report on sentencing, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected,” published January 5, 2016, contemporary Black girls (and women) continue to face disproportionate punishment as compared to their White counterparts. As with executions of Black and White women historically, Black girls today continue to receive more severe sentences than their White counterparts in the juvenile justice system. The voices of these girls need to be heard, and at this very crucial time, activist scholars must advance and transform the sociopolitical aims of creating a just society for all, as did the nineteenth-century intellectual activists discussed in this paper. While there is little to no scholarly research on the recent deaths of Black women at the hands of the criminal justice system, these cases have garnered national attention. Black women across the country including Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, Alexis McGovern, and Raynetta Turner, as well as countless others that have not received national media attention (, were all found hanged in their jail cells, a fate which presumably could have been avoided had they received social and legal protection. Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed by the police in a raid, received no legal justice whatsoever; the police officer responsible was not punished for her death, which could have been avoided ( Rekia Boyd, Marissa Alexander, and an egregiously countless list of women and girls of color abused by state-sanctioned violence continue to illustrate the need for social, political, and legal attention. Their names need to be heard; the narrative of justice in the United States must incorporate the collective narratives of Black girls and women who continue to face social and legal injustices in this country; and direct action needs to be taken—and taken now!

Lesson Plan: Black Women’s Activism From Slavery to Jane Crow to Say Her Name: Women and the Criminal Justice System

Intended Audience

Upper-Level Undergraduate Students


This lesson will examine the experiences of Black women in the criminal justice system throughout history and the social justice responses by activists and scholars. The sociopolitical and legal structural realities of Black women, as both victims and as intellectual activists, will be explored. Drawing from sociology, criminology, history, and women’s studies, students will analyze text from With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women, Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions, and Want to Start a Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle to deconstruct and analyze the social, political, and economic challenges faced by the Black community from the nineteenth century through the present day. Social movements by Black women public intellectuals will also be explored in this lesson.

Scope and Sequence

The lesson begins by examining social and legal structural policies and laws at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It examines how socially constructed identities and ideologies developed to uphold White supremacy. Students will engage in individual and small group activities to analyze state-sanctioned violence and repression historically and draw conclusions about its impact on present-day social injustices against Black women. The classroom activity is based on meeting three times a week for an hour each time and can be adjusted based on duration and number of meetings. [End Page 130]


Students will place themselves into one of three different pedagogical tracks based on their specific classroom goals. The three pedagogical tracks in the class will be: 1) Writing Track, 2) Dialogue/Discussion Track, and 3) Presentation Track. These tracks are designed to encourage students to actively engage in class by selecting a track that will help to improve specific weaknesses, e.g. writing or oral communication. Writing assignments are a critique of essays and should be no longer than two pages in length. The dialogue/discussion track is designed in such a way as to teach students to develop thesis arguments and lead classroom discussions while also developing debate and resolution techniques. The presentation track is designed for students who plan to enter the teaching profession. They will design minilectures based on the readings for the week. Each track is intended to demonstrate students’ understanding of the selected reading and their critical analysis of how the readings address intersectionality. Students will explain how White supremacy and state-sanctioned socioeconomic injustices were created, and how they are reproduced in today’s social institutions.


The lesson objectives are to:

  1. 1. Analyze and evaluate primary arguments in the following writings, essays, and speeches:

    1. a. “Reflections of the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”

    2. b. “Some Core Themes of Nineteenth-Century Black Feminism”

    3. c. “Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency”

  2. 2. Review and synthesize a major historical event at the beginning of the nineteenth century

  3. 3. Write a research paper and prepare an oral presentation examining sociopolitical struggles, resistance, and social movements led by Black women [End Page 131]

Class Discussion Questions

  1. 1. How has the media shaped the sociopolitical narrative of both Black activism and the victimization of Black women?

  2. 2. How has writing been used by Black activist scholars in the selected readings (listed above) to advocate for social and legal reform?

  3. 3. What were some socioeconomic challenges and injustices faced by the Black community in nineteenth century versus today?

  4. 4. How do we as a society begin the process of self-determination, community advocacy, and the repair of disorganized communities? (This will be an ongoing discussion throughout the semester.)

Day One: The Historical Treatment of Black Women in the United States

Class Lecture /Activity

  1. 1. Explain to students the theme for the week, which will involve spending the next three days discussing the historical social and legal punishment faced by Black women during the nineteenth century. We will discuss key terms and laws that explain the social, political, and historical conditions of the capitalist system in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the intersection of policies and laws created by the state that have influenced the punishment of Black communities, people, and women.

  2. 2. Explain how students will analyze writing and speeches as a form of activism used by nineteenth-century Black women activists to address social injustices.

  3. 3. Engage students by assessing their prior knowledge of extrajudicial and legal punishment of Black individuals during the nineteenth century.

  4. 4. Students will listen to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday while viewing a compilation of pictures on YouTube which not only illustrate domestic terrorism through state-sanctioned violence, but also the historical punishment of Black women, including lynching and placing them into the chain gang system. [End Page 132]

  5. 5. Students will take an historical quote and discuss its significance as it relates to the punishment of Black communities in the criminal justice system today. Ask them to provide specific cases and examples that are relevant to Blacks in today’s criminal justice system.

Hanging, shooting, and burning black men, women, and children in the United States have become so common that such occurrences created but little sensation and evoke but slight comment now.”—Mary Church Terrell, 1904

Day Two: Writing as Activism

Class Lecture

This lecture will allow students to critically assess and present their understanding of the readings. Students will organize in small groups; it is not required that group members be in the same pedagogical track. This is their time to raise questions from their readings, present the lecture, and highlight the ways in which Black women have been punished throughout the nineteenth century and today. Show a brief clip of the documentary Slavery by Another Name to provide an historical context for the information being presented.

Classroom Activity

Students will engage in a shared reading of “Reflections of the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” and present their critique of the essay. Students will then compare and contrast specific issues within the essay to relevant issues faced by Black women in the criminal justice system today. Students will make group presentations of no more than five minutes, providing a concise summation of their main points and allowing time for questions and answers.

Day Three: Strategies for Community Activism and Engagement

Class Lecture

Begin with a discussion of the essay by Victoria Earle Matthews, “The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman” (1897). Discuss the socioeconomic and political conditions faced by both Black men and [End Page 133] women during the end of the nineteenth century and the relevance this charge has for today’s Black activist scholars.

Classroom Activity/Discussion

Students will read the following essays: “Some Core Themes of Nineteenth-Century Black Feminism” and “Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency.” Students will form small groups and create questions based on the CVS model (Consciousness, Vision, and Strategy) in the Critical Classroom, which is a transformative pedagogical instructional tool created by activist scholars from Project South. Students will pose questions that seek to broaden the understanding of who holds power and how inequality is reproduced systematically in society. Students will then provide a vision of how they believe social justice could occur in various social institutions. Lastly, students will develop strategies for community engagement and activism to see their vision realized. Students will also incorporate technology into their presentations by identifying videos, documentaries, films, etc. that best summate the assigned readings. Students will give a 15–20 minute PowerPoint presentation of their findings based on a 15-page research paper on the topic of their choice that addresses systemic and structural inequalities from the nineteenth century.

Student evaluations will be conducted based on their incorporation of ideas and concepts discussed from readings and the interconnection to a specific topic relating to the punishment of Black women.


  1. 1. Davis, Angela Y. 1972. “Reflections of the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2: 81–100.

  2. 2. Holiday, Billie. Vocal performance of “Strange Fruit.”

  3. 3. Fishman, Walda Katz, Rose Brewer, and Lisa Albrecht. The Critical Classroom: Education for Liberation & Movement Building: Project South.

  4. 4. Logan, Shirley Wilson, ed. 1995. With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. [End Page 134]

  5. 5. Waters, Kristin and Carol B. Conaway. 2007. Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds. Hanover and London. University of Vermont Press.

  6. 6. Gore, Dayo F., Jeanne Theoharris, and Komozi Woodard, eds. 2009. Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in The Black Freedom Struggle. New York. New York University Press.

  7. 7. Bernard, Sheila Curran. 2012. Slavery by Another Name [documentary]. Dir. Sam Pollard.

Nishaun T. Battle

Nishaun T. Battle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Virginia State University. She is a Black feminist criminologist whose research examines community engagement and activism and its influence on social and legal justice outcomes. In particular, Dr. Battle focuses on and publishes about how intersectionality influences the ways in which Black women and girls are punished and victimized by the criminal legal system. Her forthcoming book Unprotected Identities: Black Women, the Legal System, and Punishment in the South, a Historical Perspective: Say Their Names (Routledge Publishing) draws from Sociology, Criminology, and Women’s Studies to investigate the construction of Black women’s labor and social identities by the state, and its intersection with the criminal legal system. Dr. Battle is an activist-scholar who is engaged in activism that addresses current social injustices within the criminal legal system that directly impact Black women and girls.


1. The term “race women” describes scholars and intellectuals who studied and advocated for the progression of the Black race. [End Page 129]

Works Cited

Battle, Nishaun T. 2014. “The Cult of True Womanhood, Punishment, and Black Women: An Intersectional Examination of 19th Century Punishment in the South.” Ph.D. diss, Howard University.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Priscilla Ocen, and Nanda Jyoti. 2015. “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected.” African American Policy Forum. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies.
Carby, Hazel V. 1987. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press.
Carlson, Shirley J. 1997. “Black Ideals of Womanhood in the Late Victorian Era.” Journal of Negro History 2: 61–73.
Clayton, Ronnie. W. 1942. “Mother Wit: The Ex-slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers’ Project: New York, NY Peter Lang Publishing.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Cooper, Anna Julia. 1988. A Voice From the South. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cooper, Brittney. 2014. “Does Anyone Care about Black Women?” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 12: 153–155.
Glass, Kathy L. 2005. “Tending to the Roots: Anna Julia Cooper’s Sociopolitical Thought and Activism.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism. 6: 23–55.
Ghandoosh, Nazgol. 2015. “Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project. Research and Advocacy for Reform.
Landry, Bart. 2002. Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Loewenberg, Bert James and Ruth Bogin. 1976. Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life. University Park, PA, and London. Pennsylvania State University Press.
Logan, Shirley W. 1995. We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. [End Page 135]
Muhammad, Khalil G. 2010. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and th Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Potter, Hillary. 2006. “An Argument for Black Feminist Criminology: Understanding African American Women’s Experiences with Intimate Partner Abuse Using an Integrated Approach.” Feminist Criminology: 1 (2) 106–124.
Potter, Hillary. 2015. Intersectionality and Criminology: Disrupting and Revolutionizing Studies of Crime: New Directions in Critical Criminology. London and New York: Routledge.
Richardson, Marilyn. 1987. America’s First Black Woman Political Writer. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IL: Indiana University Press.
Segrave, Kerry. 2008. Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840–1899: Death Sentences and Executions in the United States and Canada. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Terrell, Mary Church. 1904. “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View.” The North American Review 178: 853–868.
Terrell, Mary Church. 1907. “Peonage in the United States: The Convict Lease System and the Chain Gangs.” Nineteenth Century 62 (August): 306–22.
Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860.” American Quarterly 18, no. 2: 151–174.
Williams, Fannie Barrier. 1995. “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation.” In With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth Century African-American Women, edited by Shirley Wilson Logan, 106–119. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Young, Vernetta and Zoe Spencer. 1999. “Multiple Jeopardy: The Impact of Race, Gender, and Slavery on the Punishment of Women in Antebellum America.” In Race, Gender, and Punishment: From Colonialism to the War on Terror, edited by J. Flavin, M. Bosworth and M. Welch, 65–76. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press. [End Page 136]

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