The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period 1865-1885
The black woman’s sexual identity in the post-bellum period was also one that was fraught with a myriad of negatives. Much like the situation that evolved in slavery, freedwomen who worked for or were exposed to white men were often the recipients of sexual assault and rape. The issue of sexual assault and rape towards the black woman was an important component of the white man’s plan to keep them subservient. Rape is not a crime of passion, but an act of power over another. It allowed the man to have control, and thus power, over a woman. This situation developed in the reconstruction period. White males believed that they had to exhibit their superiority and strength over black women. Like the black codes or withholding payment, rape was a way for white society to place the black woman in a degrading and submissive position.
It should come as no surprise that black women were often the targets of sexual assault and rape. As Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson state, “a huge majority of employed black women worked in white households under the authority of and in proximity to white men, [and] they were continually exposed to sexual harassment.” The sexual abuse also did not end in the workplace. There were many situations in which white men went to the homes of freedwomen and sexually abused them. The Ku Klux Klan was one of many terrorist groups that organized raids in which white men would go into the homes of black families and rape the black women. There are also examples such as when “near Hamburg, South Carolina, five masked whites broke into Chandler Garrot’s home and raped his wife.” One other example occurred when the family of Joe Brown was tortured because he had witnessed a Klan murder. In this assault, the white men made all the women in his family, even his young children, take off all their clothes, after which they were beaten unmercifully with a piece of fishing pole. There was literally nothing that black women could do to avoid these situations. They needed to work so that their families would not starve, but most of the jobs available to them involved the company of white males. They attempted to transplant themselves and their families away from the homes and plantations on which they worked, but organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and other miscellaneous vigilante groups would proceed to attack them in their own homes. The way that they reacted to these abuses, however, exhibited countless attributes of the southern black women’s strength and identity.
The black women in the South who were subjected to rape and sexual abuse had little recourse. Their husbands signed petitions, created organizations, and spoke out about the sexual mistreatment that the women received, but these efforts to protect them fell on deaf ears. There were even examples in which “ex-slave women…pressed charges with the Freedmen’s Bureau against sexual abuse by white men.” These women made an attempt to resist, but little was done on their behalf by the southern white establishment or the northern bureaucrats. Their only recourse was to complain to the authorities and hope that something would happen, or quit their jobs and pray that no men or terrorist organizations would come to their homes with sexual intentions. These southern black women did not just stay back and passively accept the mistreatment, but instead made efforts to tell their story to the police or leave situations that were unhealthy. These women made an effort to protect what was important in their lives. The black woman looked to her legal marriage, her children, and her friends, for inspiration in protecting herself and her loved ones from the sexual deviance of whites.
The black woman’s sexual identity in the post-bellum period was one that was composed of constant fear mixed with empowerment. The very real threat of sexual abuse permeated their entire lives from their occupational experiences to their existence in their home. There was almost no escape from the southern white “predator”. These women did, however, fight back. They lobbied to make their stories known to the authorities and the freedmen’s bureau. They also strived to vacate situations that might have the potential to result in sexual mistreatment. Unlike their experience under the institution of slavery, these women did have some control over their actions and their bodies. They were in the process of reclaiming their sexual identity from pervasive southern forces.