The Origins of American Violence
Being Black in America means knowing that you are perceived as a threat. It means knowing that some people might hate, dislike, disadvantage, or mistrust you simply because the color of your skin. It also means knowing that there is a history of violence against you and that much of that violence has existed without reckoning, punishment, or sometimes, even acknowledgment.
Today, I will recognize the stories of violence that have existed in our country for centuries, for generations of families, since the beginning.
As a warning, this topic includes some graphic details of that violence. I know there are people who are triggered by this type of information, and for those people, this may not be the episode for you. But--for everyone else, I urge you to listen. Learn the extent of harm that was inflicted on Black communities. Let’s start a reckoning.
To paraphrase James Baldwin, the story of violence against Black Americans is the story of America. It is our collective history, and in order to effect real, lasting change, we must understand the details of that history.
For weeks, this country and the world witnessed numerous acts of violence against Black citizens. George Floyd was added to the long list of unarmed Black Americans killed by police during detainment related to a non-violent offense, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was attacked while on a run and killed by civilians in Georgia, and Christian Cooper was harassed and threatened with the police while bird watching in Central park. With the advent and increased use of technology, there has been a growing record of this type of violence against the Black community. But what are the origins of the violence? What is the root of it all?
Why slavery of course.
Before it was the United States, this land was occupied by natives. Brown people with lives, families, traditions and love. Then colonists came—and the rich myriad communities were decimated in the name of “a new world” ruled by Western Europeans.
The history of the hopes, dreams, and efforts of those colonists is well documented and taught in virtually all public and nearly all private academic institutions in this country. What too often goes untold about this history is what it meant for the African people who were forcefully brought to build this new world.
When I say that African laborers built the country I mean of course that they were enslaved, and forced to physically work the lands, build the homes, and craft what would become the landmarks. Think Wall Street, the White House, the Capitol Building and even Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. They were also the caretakers of white families – they cleaned the houses, breastfed the children, prepared the meals.
Black people also represented capital – their physical bodies had value. Like inanimate objects, these human beings were traded on the stock exchange, used as collateral, and were sold on auction blocks North and south.
Enslaved people were also used for entertainment, sexual gratification, and as outlets for rage.
Dehumanization was essential for the society to function properly. And violence was readily used to ensure submission from most Black people.
To be clear, the abuse of Black people was legally permissible. It was formally codified within the developing legal system to support a social norm that made people into property. In 1669, Virginia – which was a leading colonial state – enacted one of the first laws that differentiated the killing of the enslaved from other citizens who were not deemed property.
"Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants (a) resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negros, or the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared that by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his dealth shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that person appointed by the master to punish him) be aquit from mlestation, since it cannot be presumed that malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate." (Viriginia Law, 1669)
This law stated that if a white enslaver, his mistress, or other person tasked with overseeing or punishing the enslaved killed a enslaved person (or should by chance to die at their hands), the punishment of felony murder would not apply because felony murder required malice and no person who maliciously "destroy his owne estate." In other words, no white person would kill his property purely out of malice--only out of necessity.
Black lives did not matter under the law.
Jim Crow Terror
So following the Civil War slavery is officially abolished. But where did all of the violence go? In short, it didn’t go anywhere. It just manifested in new ways no longer a part of an explicitly recognized system, but still a known reality – known to black and white people.
After Reconstruction failed, Jim Crow was born and a reign of terror ensued. Violence was used to show Black people that if even they were technically citizens, they were not free.
The 13th Amendment was ratified in January 1865, yet from roughly 1877 through the 1950s, mobs brutalized Black people through a force known as lynching.
The definition of lynching varies depending on the organization analyzing the history and data. But to ground this discussion in a common understanding, we will use The Guardian’s definition – lynchings were racially motivated to inflict terror; they occurred when victims were seized and subjected to every imaginable manner of physical torment, with the torture usually ending with the person hung from a tree and set on fire.
Typically, there was a large group gathered around the body. Men, women, and sometimes children watched the murder and often took souvenirs from the victim’s body.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, there were 4,084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern States. One notorious example is the tragic case of Emmett Till. A 14-year-old accused of whistling at a white woman. That’s it. The idea of black men, teens, and children as dangerous was so pervasive that even a mere suggestion that a black male might've step out of line was punishable by brutal mob imposed death, without any due process.
Many of those lynched, were black men. But, women faced their trauma as well even though it is under-reported and under-investigated. According to the New York Times, at least 130 Black women were murdered by lynch mobs.
Ida B. Wells devoted much of her life to uncovering the racial inequities facing Black people and the violence they suffered because of it. Her legacy is often devoid of the work she did to uncover the men and women lynching victims, and the rampant sexual assault used as a tool of racial oppression.
One truly violent lynching that garnered national attention was the murder of Mary Turner. The year was 1918 and the town was Valdosta, Georgia. A planter named Hampton Smith was known for being cruel to his employees. One day, one of those black employees shot and killed Smith when he beat the employee and withheld his wages for not working while sick. Smith's murder enraged the white community and for a week a vicious mob sought out Smith's murderer and anyone they thought helped in the attack. In that span of time 13 people were lynched by the mob, including Mary Turner's husband. Distraught by his murder, Mary Turner publicly spoke out against the mob and called for their arrests. In retaliation for speaking out the mob lynched Mary Turner as well.
Eight months pregnant, Mary Turner's ankles were tied, she was hung upside down, drenched in gasoline, and set on fire. While she was still alive, writhing in pain, one of the mob members cut her stomach until her unborn child fell to the ground. The fetus was then stomped and crushed.
The vile nature of this crime, even in a society that used violence and lynching to oppress, caused many in the community to flee--some estimate 500 left the town in fear for their lives. People also wrote to local and national government officials begging for intervention. Soon, artists, authors, and journalists began to speak out about racial terror lynchings.
Wells was at the helm of bringing these issues to light through journalism, and she spoke often about the sexual violence that women faced. Because of Wells, one of the first public hearings was called to address both racial terror and sexual violence.
Like Wells, Rosa Parks devoted her life to racial justice. She is a household name for her contributions to the Civil Rights Montgomery Bus Boycott and passive protests, but her legacy is even richer.
Recy Taylor's story embodies how much Rosa Parks contributed to Black men and women of the time.
In 1944, Recy Taylor was a 24-year-old. On a day that would have otherwise been ordinary, maybe even beautiful, mob of white men abducted Recy Taylor and each of the six men raped her. A heart-wrenching, critically acclaimed documentary highlights how heroic it was of Recy Taylor to stand up against these men in times when Black women were made to feel so powerless. Bluntly title The Rape of Recy Taylor, the documentary recounts the tragedy and the efforts of Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks to seek justice.
Violence was also inflicted against entire communities when the white mobs felt Black people were too comfortable or too prosperous. Then they were called riots, but they were racial massacres carried out to subjugate Black Americans.
The most well known of attacks occured in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a neighborhood officially called Greenwood, but colloquially known as the Black Wall Street. The affluent community was utterly destroyed by a mob after 18 hours of attack. Lives were lost, homes were burned, and all that had been created was ruined because of few seconds of a white woman and a Black teenager alone in an elevator. Like with Emmett Till, the white citizens wanted to send a message about acceptable social practices between Black males and white females; and, racial tensions were brewing given how well Greenwood was doing. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 is but one example of mobs terrorizing Black groups.
Another less known encounter occurred because of an article written by Alex Manly, a Black American editor of a local Black newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina. Manly's article was in response to a white supremacist name Rebecca Felton. She claimed that Black men needed to be "suppressed" given the harm they allegedly inflicted on white women. But note: the underlying claims used to explain the unjust lynchings, only a third even used the excuse that Black men had sexually violated a white woman. So, Manly wrote to call out the fallacy and hypocrisy embedded in Felton's statement. He indicated that it was flawed logic to condemn all Black men for the acts of a rare few; he added that many of the relationships between Black men and white women were consensual (a very radical suggestion at the time). And, he added that it was indeed white men who notoriously assaulted Black women during and after slavery (and there were many mixed race children to support that claim).
In response to Manly's counterarguments, a mob rallied and demanded he be driven out of town. Manly fled North to escape the backlash and violence sure to follow. Even so, the mob burned down the newspaper headquarters were Manly was the editor.
Other instances of mob violence include Atlanta in 1906, East St. Louis in 1917, and Detroit in 1943 - to name a few.
There were also indirect actions used by white citizens to intimidate the Black community. One tactic that is heavily discussed in the 21st Century is the existence of Civil War monuments throughout the country.
As background, this discussion is not focused on the small commemorative plaques that were created shortly after the war to remember the lives lost during the war. Instead, it refers to the monuments, generally of Confederate military and political leadership, that many scholars agree were used to terrorize Black citizens.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counted 700 Confederate monuments of this kind spread over 31 states. Mind you, only 11 states seceded from the Union. Most of the monuments were built between the 1890s and the 1950s (a similar timeline as the mass lynchings we just discussed). In fact, the biggest spike for the monuments being created is between 1900 and 1920 - almost 50 years after the war ended. So the argument that they are merely meant to honor the local lives lost, is transparently thin.
Stationed in city centers and in front of government buildings, these monuments act as a constant reminder to Black folks that many of those in power share the values of the Confederacy, a sect devoted to maintaining a brutal slave society.
In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, citizens and state officials began to show their support of the Confederacy in other ways too. In 1956, Georgia changed its state flag to include the Confederate Battle Flag. It was not removed until 2001. In 1962, South Carolina put the Confederate Battle Flag on its Capital building.
In total, the SPLC estimates that there are 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces in the U.S. Symbols of an army created to uphold enslavement and dehumanization of Black people. Symbols of oppression reignited at times when Black people asked for more - for equality.
The Invisible Hand of Racism Today
So why does this matter? Why dredge up gruesome details of past violence? Because racism of the past is fueling problems of the present.
In fact, in 2018 NBC reported that in every tally of bias, Black Americans have been the most frequent victims of hate crimes since the FBI began collecting the data in the early 1990s.
From Trump doubting Obama’s heritage, to nooses hanging on university campuses, to Dylan Roof murdering Black church goers, we see frequent reminders that racism is alive and well.
Amy Cooper's vile call to 911 falsely claiming that her life was in danger because of "an African American man," was steeped in the history of Black men being threatened and killed after interactions with white women.
Ahmaud Arbery's broad daylight killing, only a two hour drive from where Mary Turner was burned alive reeks of vigilante justice against a 25-year-old viewed as less than human.
And the nine minutes that George Floyd begged for mercy are all too reminiscent of public executions of Black people throughout history killed without due process.
Without technology, these stories may have never gotten the public outcry that forced steps toward justice. Even with the video recordings from each, there is still a chance full justice will never be received, especially in the cases where lives were lost.
A woman - who isn't Black - recently asked me why Christian Cooper was recording in the first place. She intimated that he was in part at fault for this act, that it may have agitated Amy Cooper. To this I simply say, bullshit. It is BECAUSE Christian Cooper and countless others have recorded these moments that we are having the discussion, that people are joining the Black community to fight these injustices. We need this footage to prove something that should be self-evident.
The invisible hands of racism are killing us. And that is just as real a threat to Black lives as COVID-19.
Many Black Americans already know this history. We have studied it, we have heard tale of the horrors from members of each generation of our families, we have experienced the remnants ourselves. And still, when we walk the halls of predominantly white institutions we have to pretend that racism doesn't exist. We have to hide that part of our fears that are directly linked to being Black in America. But just as we were raised by the victims of these crimes, the perpetrators raised children, had leadership positions, influenced neighbors, friends, and communities. Too many carried the legacy of hate with them, infecting new generations with the sickness. So we share this legacy and the responsibility for confronting it.
Now, we refuse to be silent. We demand a cure.
Many of the crimes discussed were aided and abetted by law enforcement. And the legal system, prison industrial complex, & police force have done catastrophic damage to Black communities. So next time, we will take an in-depth look into state sanctioned violence. Check out next week's American Origin Stories, the BLM episodes.
Until next time....
All music from Storyblocks - specifically: "R&B Instrumental Rap Beat" and "Slave."
Stock Images from Canva