Black Female Executions in Historical Context

Date01 March 2008
Published date01 March 2008
Subject MatterArticles
Black Female Executions in
Historical Context
David V. Baker
Riverside Community College, California
This article examines the systemic oppression of executed Black women from the earliest peri-
ods of American history. The most consistent factor in Black female executions throughout U.S.
history is criminal justice authorities’ executions of Black women largely for challenging gen-
dered and racist exploitation. Colonial and antebellum slavery institutionalized the persecution
of slave women, who often retaliated against oppressive brutality by killing White masters.
White lynch mobs effectively augmented the legal killing of Black women in postbellum soci-
ety and lowered Black female execution rates. Reduced to a peonage state in the apartheid of Jim
Crow, Black women’s crimes of resistance against White brutality paralleled those of slave
women decades earlier. And despite the delusional expansion of civil rights and the sovereignty
of Black people over the confines of segregation in the modern era, the racialized sexism of
American criminal justice has rendered Black women ever more vulnerable to the death penalty.
Keywords: Black females; executions; capital punishment; systemic oppression
Criminal justice researchers have afforded scant attention to gendered racism in capital
punishment (Feinman, 1994; Seitz, 2005), and what research investigators have done
on gender issues in capital sentencing is limited largely to the modern era (Bohm, 2003;
Crocker, 2001; Howarth, 1994, 2002; Morgan, 2003, Rapaport, 2000, 2001; Rueter, 1996;
Schmall, 1996; Schulberg, 2000, 2003; Shapiro, 2000; Streib, 2003; D. White, 1998). Few
scholars have linked the atrocities committed against Black women by contemporary
justice practitioners to comparable forms of mistreatment experienced by Black women to
the centuries of Black female oppression preceding the modern era in capital punishment
(D. Baker, 1999; Harries, 1992; P. Johnson, 1995; Seitz, 2005; Streib & Sametz, 1989). Yet,
as bell hooks (1981) makes clear, “sexism looms as large as racism as an oppressive force
in the lives of black women” (p. 15). Surprisingly, although death penalty jurisdictions put
to death 83% of Black women executed in the United States before the end of slavery, crim-
inal justice researchers have failed to study female executions during that period, as well as
during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights period, beyond simply constructing
descriptive profiles of dubious historical data (Streib, 1990). Analyses of Black female exe-
cutions are devoid of a historical–contextual connection between earlier and later execution
periods; thus, criminal justice researchers have failed to account for Black women execu-
tions as corresponding to the U.S. justice system’s historical legacy of devaluing Black
women (Mann, 1989).
This article furthers our understanding of the intersection between gendered racism and
capital punishment in the U.S. criminal justice system by examining the contextual pecu-
liarities giving rise to Black female executions since the earliest periods of American history.
The historical record makes clear that challenging the racist and sexist exploitation of Whites
Criminal Justice Review
Volume 33 Number 1
March 2008 64-88
© 2008 Georgia State University
Research Foundation, Inc.
hosted at
Baker / Black Female Executions 65
largely accents Black female executions during slavery, when Black females retaliated vio-
lently against White oppressive brutality. Lynch mob violence toward Black females was so
pervasive in the postbellum period that Black female execution rates actually decreased rel-
ative to their numbers in colonial and antebellum slavery. In the apartheid of Jim Crow,
Black female crimes of resistance against White brutality paralleled those of slave women
decades earlier. And the racialized sexism of mostly White judicial officers in the modern
era has rendered Black women vulnerable to the death penalty even supposing a national
civil rights agenda diminishing the gendered racism troubling the lives of Black women.
African Women and the Slave Trade
The gendered racism accenting the lives of Black females in the United States began
when European slavers transported some 650,000 Africans from West African coastal
nations to colonial enterprises in British North America. The experiences of slave women
were significantly different from those of enslaved men (D. White, 1998). Traders did not
place female slaves in ship holds with shackled males, thus rendering them particularly sus-
ceptible to the vicious maltreatment of White slavers. Slave traders usually positioned
female slaves on quarterdecks where they could move freely and be far more accessible
to the sexual perversions of officers who “were permitted to indulge their passions”
(P. Johnson, 1995, p. 15, note 84). Rape was a common torture for captured, disobedient
slave women. Traders often branded slaves once aboard ship and would ruthlessly beat
slave women who resisted stripping naked for the practice. Crewmembers particularly
“ridiculed, mocked, and treated contemptuously” slave women with children (hooks, 1981,
p. 19). Slavers sadistically abused slave children just to watch the mothers’anguish, and if
a child died from the cruelty, slavers forced the mother to throw their child overboard or
suffer even more brutality. Slavers were no less barbaric in their treatment of captured preg-
nant slave women. Aboard the American slave ship Pongas carrying some 250 mostly preg-
nant women, for instance, females “who survived the initial stages of pregnancy gave birth
aboard ship with their bodies exposed to either the scorching sun or the freezing cold”
(hooks, 1981, pp. 18-19). Even if a newborn survived the ordeal, captured mothers often
smothered to death their babies fearing the child would grow up in slavery (Bennett, 1982).
The historical record is clear—in the earliest periods of initial contact with Africans,
American slave traders viciously mistreated their female captives. African women suffered
excessively from the “brutalization and terrorization” of the slave trade (hooks, 1981) with
slavers commonly subjecting Black women to such unique forms of abuse as rape, sexual
assault, and vicious attacks against their pregnancies and motherhood (hooks, 1981;
Christopher, 2006).
Slave Women Executions in Colonial and Antebellum Slavery
Slavery was a societal system of domination, degradation, and subordination, with an
especially rigid legal structure allowing privileged, landowning Whites to manage African
women as chattel property (Weicek, 1996, p. 1714). It was the concerted efforts of colonial
legislatures, judicial officers, regional sheriffs, and local constables that formed the justice

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