Years before Oprah Winfrey’s stirring speech at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards in which the talk-show queen spoke about the tribulations of Recy Taylor, historian and author Danielle L. McGuire had already uncovered the story of the 24-year-old Black sharecropper who was raped by six White men in 1944 as she walked home from a late-night church service.
McGuire had researched her book for more than seven years and learned that the NAACP office in Montgomery, Ala., sent Rosa Parks to investigate the case.
And while Taylor’s tragic plight is detailed extensively in the book, “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,” McGuire delves deep into the history of violence against Black women in America.
“I started with a woman named Betty Jean Owens of Tallahassee, Fla., who was raped by four White men,” McGuire said. “Her friends went to the police, and normally White Southern police officers wouldn’t believe a group of Black women, but [eventually] Betty Jean Owens’ testimony in a Jim Crow courtroom helped to secure life sentences for the crime.
“It was the first time that I found that White men were convicted for the rape of a Black woman,” she said.
McGuire’s book notes that the protests of Black women against rape fueled major civil rights campaigns across the south, including the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and the 1965 Selma campaign.
“I knew that rape was common during slavery and I wanted to know if the practices that were so common during slavery continued after emancipation so I was researching sexual violence against Black women by White men,” McGuire said. “In one of the archives that I was in, I found a pamphlet from the Civil Rights Congress, which was kind of a leftist northern civil rights organization. The pamphlet was a listing of all the crimes that had been committed against African-Americans. It said something like the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor petitioned Gov. Chauncey Sparks for justice in her case.”
McGuire discerned that if governors had archives, there has to be some pertinent details in them.
“I went to Alabama and I ordered Gov. Chauncey Sparks’ papers and he had four boxes of material on Recy Taylor,” she said. “It was absolutely astounding. It was like an archival gold mine in the sense that you never find those kind of detailed documents on women. You also never find investigations in that era, where it’s sort of proven that the state is trying to cover up and protect assailants in a crime.”
She also realized the significance of the history she’d dug up.
“Locally, if you laid out the petitions and postcards by cities, what you saw was a map of the civil rights movement,” McGuire said.
Additionally, McGuire discovered petitions that came from Black women’s organizations, organized labor unions, Black workers and individuals including Rosa Parks.
“It was the building blocks, the network, the highways and the roads of the freedom movement,” McGuire said of those findings.
“At the Dark End of the Street …” centers Black women’s experiences and leadership in the civil rights movement, such as Betty Jean Owens’ historic testimony in 1959 and Joan Little’s bold resistance to sexual assault while incarcerated in North Carolina in the 1970s.
But since Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech about Taylor, who died Dec. 28 at the age of 97, more attention has been given to the assault case that never went to trial as two all-White, all-male grand juries refused to indict the men.
“Some on the grand jury were neighbors of the assailants,” McGuire said. “When I first started doing research into her case, there was absolutely nothing written. It’s incredible that her story has been carried by so many people. I only wish that Oprah could have met her because I think she would have been as inspired by her as I am. Clearly it sparked something in her to make her talk about [Taylor] at the Golden Globes.”
“At The Dark End of the Street” can be purchased at Amazon and at other book sellers.