Last updated: February 13, 2024
For centuries, Black women have been survivors of sexual assault. While many have chosen silence as a survival mechanism, there is a long and overlooked history of Black women, like Mrs. Recy Taylor, upholding the tradition of testimony and protest. Despite their trauma, Black women have reclaimed their bodies and dignity by testifying, in detail, in open court about their terrifying ordeals to seek justice against their assailants. Through their testimonies, Black women galvanized efforts against sexualized violence and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice. For Danielle McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott was the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect Black women from sexualized violence and rape. That decades-long struggle began in 1944 with the brutal rape of Mrs. Recy Taylor. She courageously encountered intimidation and actively participated in two separate trials to bring her attackers to justice. We honor her as an ancestor for teaching us a lesson on courage and for her bravery in bringing attention to the sexual exploitation of Black women.
It was nearly midnight on September 3, 1944, when Mrs. Recy Taylor left the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama to walk home with Fannie Daniel (60 years old), and Daniel’s son, West (18 years old). As the trio walked along the peanut plantations that lined Abbeville-Headland Highway, they noticed an old, green, Chevrolet pass them at least three times. Young white men stared out its windows before the car rolled to a stop ahead of them. Seven white men exited the car with guns and knives. Herbert Lovett, a twenty-four-year-old private in the U.S. Army, told Taylor and the Daniels to stop. When they ignored him, Lovett raised his shotgun. As the group of white men closed in, Lovett said, “We’re looking for this girl, right here. She’s the one that cut that white boy (Tommy Clarson) in Clopton this evening.”[i] Lovett added that the sheriff, George H. Gramble, had sent them to find the alleged assailant. Taylor attempted to run, but Lovett cocked his gun and pointed it at her head, stating, “I’ll kill you if you run.” Lovett then walked Taylor back to the car and shoved her in. All seven men crowded into the car and drove away. A few miles up the road, the car turned off the main highway onto a tractor path into the woods, coming to a stop in a grove of pecan trees. Pointing his shot gun at her, Lovett demanded that Taylor disrobe. She begged to go home to her husband and family. Lovett was the first of six men who raped Taylor that night. After they were finished, they blindfolded her and dropped her off on the highway. After getting her bearings, she began the long walk home.
As she approached the Three Points intersection, a vehicle approached her. Inside, was her father, Benny Corbitt and Will Cook, the former chief of police. They drove her to Cook’s store, where Fanny and West Daniel and her husband, Willie Guy Taylor, were waiting for her. West Daniel reported Taylor’s kidnapping and identified the car as belonging to Hugo Wilson. Within 30 minutes of her telling Cook what happened, Cook had Wilson, his father, and the old green sedan at his store. Wilson gave up the names of his accomplices: Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpeper, and Robert Gramble. Wilson argued that they did not force Taylor to have sex, but that they paid her. This was a common practice in the south for white Southerners, even racist ones, to visit Black sex workers. Sheriff Gramble sent Wilson home with a $250 bond and instructions to have his parents sign and return at their leisure. The other men were not brought in or ever arrested. If Sheriff Gramble had hoped it was over that night, he was mistaken. In the days that followed, the Black community reported the incident to the NAACP in Montgomery. They responded by sending their best investigator and antirape activist—Rosa Parks.
Though she had only been with the Montgomery NAACP for a year, Parks was already a seasoned activist. She had been documenting such crimes against Black women and working to ensure that these women had their day in court. Sexual assault was a personal issue for Parks, as a white neighbor attempted to assault her in 1931. Parks took the story back with her to Montgomery and began organizing. With support from local activists, she formed the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Its aim was to assist Black women in reclaiming their bodies against sexual violence and interracial rape. By the following spring, it was the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”[ii]
On October 3 and 4, 1944, the all-white, all-male Henry County Grand Jury took up Taylor’s case. Though no one expected equal justice, they hoped for an honest hearing. It was only there that Taylor found out none of the assailants had been arrested. This meant that the only witness for Taylor were her Black friends and family. Sheriff Gramble never ordered a police line-up so Taylor could not identify her attackers in order. Deliberation lasted five minutes, and the case was dismissed. The following day, Gramble issued appearance warrants for the men the day after the case was heard.
Taylor and her family faced violent intimidation. The day after it was reported her home was firebombed as the family slept. The next day Taylor moved in with her father and siblings. Corbitt, Recy’s father, took guard every night in a tree with a gun until daybreak. Black activists in Alabama and throughout the south rallied behind Taylor and demanded punishment for her assailants. As a result, Governor Sparks launched an investigation and Sheriff Gramble was questioned about his failure to ensure justice on the behalf of Taylor. He falsely claimed he started an independent investigation after the attack and that he arrested all the men involved after the assault. To discredit and intimidate Taylor, Gramble took J. V. Kitchens and N.W. Kimborough, Sparks’ private investigators, aside and claimed that Taylor had a reputation around town. Gramble claimed she had been treated for venereal disease and was arrested several times upon written request from the county health officer. Cook backed up the sheriff’s story. After the assistant attorney general, John O. Harris came to Abbeville, Gramble changed his story, claiming that her reputation “is as good as any Negro’s in that community.”[iii] Kitchens and Kimborough interviewed the assailants and almost all of them said that she was a prostitute and a willing participant. Wilson denied being present and claimed to know nothing about it. Lovett claimed he didn’t know why any of his friends would want to bring him into something like that and that he was innocent. Culpeper corroborated Taylor’s testimony in detail. Aided by the assailant’s statements, Culpeper’s admission, and affidavits, and Gramble’s recantations and lies, Governor Sparkes ordered a second grand jury hearing. The case was heard by an all-white, all-male jury on February 14, 1945. They refused to issue an indictment.
Despite the outcome, Taylor’s case was a major step towards the formation of the civil rights movement. The Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor expanded its approach and signaled is intent to wage war on the ritual rape and everyday assaults of Black women. The committee’s ability to mobilize local people and rally national attention laid a foundation for the formal civil rights movement. Leaders of the CEJRT, like Rosa Parks and E.D. Dixon, would later form the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was responsible for the 1955 bus boycotts. Public transportation became the target of resistance because it was easier and safer for Black women to stop riding buses than it was to bring their attackers to justice.
Taylor lived with her family in Abbeville for two decades after the brutal assault, which left her unable to have more children. At some point, she separated from her husband, who passed in the early 1960s. In 1965, she moved to Florida where she found work picking oranges. Her only child, Joyce Lee, died in a car accident in 1967. She returned to Abbeville after spending many years in Winter Haven, Florida due to her failing health. Taylor received apologies from the mayor of Abbeville and from the county and state government in 2011 after the publication of McGuire’s book.
Taylor’s assault speaks to a long legacy of sexual assault on Black women and the arduous task of seeking justice on their behalf. As harrowing as her story is, it is also undoubtedly inspiring. Taylor was an active participant in the journey to bring her attackers to justice. Her story speaks to the resolve of Black women to channel their pain and anger into action. Their tradition of testimony and protest has changed how sexual violence is understood. We must hear their voices and work to understand the historic and contemporary circumstances that shape the experiences of Black women. Through Rosa Parks and the struggle for justice for Black women, her story is associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott which is a part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
This article is part of the "Exploring the Meaning of Black Womanhood Series: Hidden Figures in NPS Places" written by Dr. Mia L. Carey, NPS Mellon Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. This project was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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[i] McGuire 2010: xvi
[ii] McGuire 2010: 15
[iii] McGuire 2010: 41