As we approach February and honor Black History Month, we acknowledge that the rape crisis movement began during slavery when Black Americans were treated with cruelty, prejudice and disrespect. Perhaps the first women in the United States to break the silence around rape were African-American women who testified before Congress following the Memphis Riot of May 1866, during which a number of Black women were gang-raped by a white mob. This is documented in “Black Women in White America: A Documentary History.” (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
“The history of the rape crisis movement in the United States is also a history of the struggle of African-American women against racism and sexism. During slavery, the rape of enslaved women by white men was common and legal. After slavery ended, sexual and physical violence, including murder, were used to terrorize and keep the Black population from gaining political or civil rights. The results and legacy of such hatred were vicious. Thousands of Black men were lynched with the false charge of rape– a common accusation. Rape laws made rape a capital offense only for a Black man found guilty of raping a white woman.” (source/excerpt: “The History of the Rape Crisis Movement” by Gillian Greensite).
The earliest efforts to systematically confront and organize against rape began in the 1870’s when African-American women, most notably Ida B. Wells, took leadership roles in organizing anti-lynching campaigns. The courage of these women in the face of hatred and violence is profoundly inspiring. Their efforts led to the formation of the Black Women’s Club movement in the late 1890’s and laid the groundwork for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.”
We encourage reading “History of the Rape Crisis Movement” by Gillian Greensite, Director of Rape Prevention Education at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The article was written as part of a publication for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2003 publication: “Support for Survivors: Training for Sexual Assault Counselors.”