Recy Taylor was born on December 31, 1919, to a family of sharecroppers in Abbeville, Alabama. She became the primary caretaker of her six siblings at age seventeen after her mother died. Recy went on to marry Willie Guy Taylor, and the couple had a child in 1941.
On September 3, 1944, Recy Taylor, her friend Fannie Daniels, and Daniels’s son West Daniels attended an evening church service. On their walk home, a car containing seven white men stopped alongside them, and the men kidnapped Taylor at gunpoint. They threatened her life and brought her to the woods, where six of them raped her. After the attack, they left her on the side of the highway.
Fannie Daniels reported the kidnapping of her friend to local authorities immediately. Taylor’s father, Benny Corbitt, and the former chief of police Will Cook went out looking for Taylor and found her as she was making her way home.
She described the assault to the police, and through her description of the car, the police identified and brought in Hugo Wilson. Wilson admitted to the attack, but alleged that the men had paid Taylor and argued that they could therefore not be charged with rape. He named the other six attackers as Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, and Robert Gamble. After Wilson confessed, the police sent him home and refused to arrest the other men. The following day, the Taylors’ home was set on fire.
The attack, and the lack of justice evident in the official response, spurred a major campaign of activism by Black civil rights organizers in Alabama. The NAACP chapter in Montgomery, Alabama, became involved, sending Rosa Parks to investigate and advocate on Taylor’s behalf. Parks launched the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.
About a month after the attack, a grand jury made up entirely of white men refused to indict the six rapists. Due to Rosa Parks’s and others’ organizing, the governor’s office was overwhelmed with letters of support for Taylor, and the governor reopened the case. However, on February 14, 1945, a second all-white, all-male grand jury refused to indict, and the men were never prosecuted.
In a 2011 interview, Recy Taylor said, "They didn't try to do nothing about it. I just get upset because I do my best to be nice to people, because I don't want people to mistreat me and do me any kind of way.” That year, the state of Alabama formally apologized to Taylor for the failure to prosecute her rapists.
A documentary about Taylor’s experience, titled The Rape of Recy Taylor, was released in 2017. Three weeks later, she died in Abbeville at the age of ninety-seven.
Ella Mae Ellison
The story of Ella Mae Ellison’s wrongful conviction for first-degree murder and armed robbery begins on November 30, 1973, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Three young Black men armed with handguns attempted to rob a local pawn shop, Suffolk Loan Co. As they began to rob the display cases, an off-duty police officer entered the store and attempted to intervene. Detective John Schroeder was killed in the ensuing struggle, and the young men fled.
Three days later, the young men were arrested, and, when questioned, one of them said that an eighteen-year-old “lighter-skinned Black girl” drove their getaway car. This unknown fourth participant would face murder charges under the felony-murder rule. Two of the three young men, Nathanial Williams and Anthony Irving, flipped to testify against Terrell Walker, who they said fired the gun, and agreed to testify against the unknown getaway driver. Williams and Irving stated that the driver was Ella Mae Ellison, a dark-skinned, twenty-seven-year-old, Black woman and mother of four. Ellison knew these young men, as they had resided in the same housing project, and she had given them rides before, furnishing them with details of her vehicle to describe to police.
Despite her total incompatibility with the description of the getaway driver, Ellison was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery in November 1974 and sentenced to life in prison. When she was convicted, she said, “I can’t live without my kids. I’ll kill myself.” The Ella Ellison Support Committee launched a robust defense campaign to free Ella. Two years later, Williams and Irving recanted their testimony about Ellison, admitting that there was no fourth person involved and that they had invented a getaway driver to shift blame from Irving. Two years after that, after Ellison had served four years in a state penitentiary, her conviction was reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Later, the charges against her were also dismissed.
On June 23, 1855, after enduring five years of sexual violence, Celia, a nineteen-year-old enslaved woman from Missouri, killed her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom was a widower at least forty-five years older than Celia who purchased her when she was fourteen. On the day he purchased her, Newsom raped her on the way to his farm.
By the time she killed Newsom, Celia already had two children and was pregnant with a third. According to trial records, she had started a relationship with one of Newsom’s male slaves named George, who insisted that she end her sexual “relationship” with Newsom if she wanted to continue her relationship with him.
Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and implored them to ask their father to end the sexual assaults. No one could or would protect her, and so she confronted Newsom herself when he came to force yet another unwanted sexual encounter. She clubbed him to death and then burned his body in her fireplace.
Celia’s court-appointed defense lawyers suggested that a Missouri law permitting a woman to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual advances extended to enslaved women as well as to free ones. The court rejected this vigorous defense, finding that Celia was property rather than a person and was therefore guilty of murder. She was sentenced to death by hanging. While Celia was not considered a person under the law and could therefore not be considered to have been raped, she was granted enough agency to be judged a murderess and punished for her act of resistance.
While incarcerated, Celia gave birth to a baby that the public record suggests was stillborn. On November 11, five days before her scheduled execution, Celia was rescued from her jail cell by sympathetic supporters who were concerned that she would be killed before her appeal had been heard. She was returned to jail after her execution date had passed. After the Missouri Supreme Court rejected an appeal of her case, Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855.
Margaret Garner was born enslaved in about 1833 on the Maplewood plantation in Kentucky. Her desperate choice to kill her daughter rather than return her to slavery became the subject of Toni Morrison’s canonical text Beloved.
Margaret was a domestic servant inside the home of the plantation’s owner, John P. Gaines, and from her early childhood helped to care for his children. At the age of sixteen, Margaret married Robert Garner, who was enslaved on a neighboring plantation. Around the same time, Gaines was appointed governor of the Oregon Territories and sold the plantation—and its enslaved people—to his brother, Archibald Gaines.
Archibald Gaines is believed to have repeatedly raped Garner, possibly fathering three of the four children she bore over the next six years.
On January 27, 1856, Margaret, who was again pregnant, and Robert escaped with a group of families to southwest Ohio. The group crossed the frozen Ohio River and pursued different paths after reaching the free state. The Garners made it to the home of a free relative living outside Cincinnati. There, they were ambushed by US marshals and Archibald Gaines. Robert attempted to protect the family with a gun he had taken from his former slave owner, but was unsuccessful. During the altercation, Margaret attempted to kill all her children and herself rather than return to slavery. She only succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter, Mary, before being captured and arrested.
The fugitive slave trial that followed pitted Ohio’s interest in treating Margaret and Robert as free people who could be tried for murder against the federal Fugitive Slave Act, under which they were considered property. The judge ordered Margaret and Robert returned to slavery in Kentucky as the property of Archibald Gaines. Authorities from Ohio continued to work to bring Margaret to Ohio and arrest her as part of a complex plan to secure her freedom, but Archibald Gaines moved Margaret from location to location to prevent them from finding her. In one of the moves, the Garner family was sent to Arkansas via riverboat. Their boat collided with another boat and Margaret’s youngest child, the baby Priscilla, drowned in the accident.
Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858.