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Rape records from early US history
September 29, 2008 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find antebellum white-on-black rape statistics?

How would you go about finding such things, given that slaves were considered property and, consequently, rape was charged, if ever, as trespassing on the owner's private property. Do archives exist in which criminal justice records from before 1865 would provide evidence that such crimes took place?
posted by billtron to Law & Government (8 answers total)
email the Southern Poverty Law Center, I'm sure they can send you the right way
posted by matteo at 10:35 AM on September 29, 2008

I would assume that such records exist only as a curiosity and have no validity whatsoever, unless your point is to only look at the handful of cases that were actually prosecuted. I suppose that might include cases of trespass, but it would seem to ignore completely cases of master/slave relations which today would automatically be considered rape but back then were part and parcel of the "peculiar institution". Hell, DNA proves "such crimes took place".

Of course archives exist -- I would start with state historical societies. But I wouldn't expect very many local court records to exist anymore. Some places purge stuff on a regular basis, even things that have ongoing utility like property tax records (title searches can go back to the original federal land grant).
posted by dhartung at 10:37 AM on September 29, 2008

The short answer, I think, is that you can't. For one thing, a lot of those rapes would have been committed by the master or by someone in the master's family, and therefore wouldn't have been considered rape at all. A slave did not own her body. Her master was entitled to use her body in any way he saw fit, including forcing her to have sex with himself or someone else. The only way that would make it to the courts is if it came up in a trial involving a different issue. You can definitely find evidence that the rape of slaves happened: it's in memoirs written by escaped slaves, as well as in reminiscences written by freed people. I don't think you're going to find statistics, though. Rape statistics are difficult to gather under the best of circumstances, and these are about the worst circumstances imaginable. And there are thorny issues about whether all sexual relations between masters and slaves should be considered rape, given the power dynamics, or whether it's ever possible to talk about those relations as something else.

I think there's been a ton of scholarship on this issue, for what it's worth. This bibliography looks like it might get you started.
posted by craichead at 10:49 AM on September 29, 2008

You aren't going to be able to find statistics, I'm almost sure of it.

Documentation is another matter--there were both arrests and civil cases about this (brought by a slave owner against the person who had committed the rape, not by the enslaved person themselves, that is).

The book Reconstructing the Household by Peter Bardaglio has at least one chapter about how rape between slaves and free people was treated by the legal system.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:49 AM on September 29, 2008

Well, this is another moment where we reveal the double meaning of criminal justice. You won't find criminal justice records from before 1865 on white rape of blacks. Not only was it not considered rape in virtually all instances, but black testimony was almost always considered worthless against white defendants.

Of course, I'd second Craichead's point that "whether all sexual relations between masters and slaves should be considered rape, given the power dynamics, or whether it's ever possible to talk about those relations as something else."
posted by history is a weapon at 11:51 AM on September 29, 2008

There is an archive of a kind which might bear on this: the DNA of African-Americans.

I was listening to the Tavis Smiley show in its first incarnation on NPR a few years ago, when he and a guest mentioned in passing that a result of a bit of a fad among black people for tracing one's roots back to specific regions of Africa was the surprising discovery that around a third of the Y chromosomes of American black men came initially from white men. I've been waiting to see confirmation of this from some authoritative source, but so far I haven't.

But whatever the actual level may be of Y chromosomes from white men that exists among black American men, I think the default assumption would have to be that most of them came from acts we would describe as rape.
posted by jamjam at 11:58 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Both it and its author, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, are fascinating. As a young, unmarried, black woman, Wells-Barnett traveled through the South, gathering information on reported lynchings to debunk the standard lynching defense: those savage darkies deserved it for raping innocent white women. I can't remember if she does it here but she did write about the fact that it was far more common for white slave-owners to rape black women: "It is written in the faces of the million mulattoes in the South."
posted by dogrose at 1:02 PM on September 29, 2008

(Sorry -- I meant to add that I know this isn't exactly on point but, as others have pointed out, I doubt the records you're looking for exist. IBWB's work, tangential as it is, might be useful.)
posted by dogrose at 1:04 PM on September 29, 2008

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