Black Advocates Against Sexual Violence Series
So much of Black History is rooted in trauma and oppression. And this Black History Month, I struggled with the need to highlight important activists within US History that fought against sexual violence, while also trying to limit the exposure of their pain and suffering. As a society, we've endured so much this past year, and as a Black Community, the trauma never seems to stop.
All things considered, it's important to reflect on the past, learn from it and reverence the sacrifices while in the present. And that is my hope with sharing these stories over the next few weeks. *Please consider this a trigger warning with mention of rape, sexual assault, police brutality, and other forms of violence in the stories to follow.*
Meet Francis Thompson.
Around 1856 and after gaining her freedom, Francis migrated to Memphis, Tennessee to begin her new life. A decade later she survived the Memphis Massacre which decimated her community as a direct result of the racial tensions that intensified after the American Civil War during the Reconstruction Era. White rage and the political disdain over Black Union Soldiers had claimed over 40 African American lives, 91 homes, 4 churches, and 12 schools - sparking the Memphis Riots.
During the riots, it was common practice for white southerners to raid homes demanding food and shelter which was the case with Francis and her 16 year old roommate, Lucy. Testimonial records recounts the day Francis' home was raided, robbed, and she and her roommate were raped. She identified a total of 7 men - 2 of which were Irish Policemen - who stole money, valuable clothing and other items from Francis' home. Her and Lucy reported being ill for 2 weeks following their assualt.
Thereafter, Francis followed many women before her whom endured sexual violence during the Civil War, and reported the assault as nonconsensual. She provided congressional testimony before the 39th Congress in Washington D.C. but no charges would come from her testimony. Instead she dealt with a decade of police harassment and false allegations of petty crimes and more serious offenses. Many times she had been arrested under the suspicion of being a man and had evaded the charges until 1876.
Francis disclosed she was of "double sex" but was doubted by a white physician and was arrested for examination. She was subjected to a series of invasive probings by four white physicians who determined her true sex as male. She was then fined $50, but was unable to pay and was sent to prison to work the male chain gang. Francis survived the brutal months in custody but became ill after being released and died in November of 1876.
This Black History Month, Haven Box remembers Francis Thompson for her resilience and unwavering courage that paved the way for many survivors and activists to follow. Francis' life and spirit is reflected in the work we do as we spread awareness, support survivors and fight to end sexual violence.
Sources below offer a more detailed account of her congressional testimony, newspaper articles of her arrest, and the book in which these images were collected.