- Private Matters in Public SpacesIntimate Partner Violence against Black Women in Jim Crow Houston
The maps on pgs. 64-65 have been updated in the online version of this article (06.26.19). Click here to see original posting of the article.
Historian Darlene Clark Hine noted in 1989, "One of the most remarked upon but least analyzed themes in Black women's history deals with Black women's sexual vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape and domestic violence."1 Recently, and with more frequency, scholars have answered Hine's call to address the ways black women have been excluded from serious consideration as potential and actual victims of rape, focusing especially on the dangers posed to them by white men. However, historians have yet to produce a comprehensive literature that examines the risks black women, after slavery, faced in their own homes and neighborhoods at the hands of men who were often their intimate partners.2 We know very little about the romantic lives of ordinary black women during the middle of the twentieth century, except that the 1950s mark the beginning of a divergence in marriage rates between black and white Americans. As white Americans generally enjoyed greater educational outcomes and higher earning potentials in the post–World War II period, black Americans, and especially the least educated among black men, witnessed a decline in real wages.3 However, apart from such broad sociological analyses of black family structures, scholars have not yet fully explored the quotidian of black women's lives during the mid-century.
This article elucidates a history of intimate partner violence in the middle of the twentieth century, focusing specifically on the experiences of black women in Houston, Texas. The city's social geography was defined by racial residential segregation, and Houston was infamous for its culture of public violence. Both these realities complicated how socioeconomic status interacted with black women's risk for intimate partner violence. These structural complications also abetted the publicity of black women's private lives in the local press, thereby eliding clear distinctions between private and [End Page 58] public.4 Methodologically, I began by building a database of all of the crimes reported in the Saturday edition of the Houston Informer, a bi-weekly black-owned newspaper, from 1950 through 1959, and a sample of crimes reported in the Houston Post, one of the city's two daily national papers, for the same decade.5 For this article I isolated only those instances of intimate partner violence and street harassment for qualitative and quantitative analysis. Additionally, using geographic information systems (GIS) tools, I mapped this data, digitized US Census block statistics, and created block maps of Houston neighborhoods to explore the relationship between space, gender, personal relationships, and violence specifically for black women in the context of a segregated city.6 During this decade the Informer reported 309 incidences of intimate partner violence. Black men victimized black women in 263 of those cases. The stories were often brief, recounting the moment of violence as reported by responding police officers or recalled by the surviving woman or, as was too often the case, the man who had killed her.
Descriptive statistics regarding gender were one remarkably consistent measure across both the Informer's and the Post's reporting, particularly the proportion of victims of crimes by sex. When the sex of the victim was included in the stories, the tallies from both the Post and the Informer showed that men made up six out of every ten victims of all crimes, and women about four of every ten. These numbers are commensurate with crime data even into the twenty-first century, where the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) records that men are about 60 percent of all victims of violent crimes, and women just above 40 percent. However, when I disaggregated the stories to look specifically at victims of intimate partner violence, family violence, or street harassment, women figured as 85 percent of victims in the Informer and about 90 percent of victims in the Post. These numbers, too, are consistent with BJS data in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, where...