Frances Thompson, Survivor of the Memphis Massacre

(Wikimedia Commons)

by Andrea Spencer (@__aerdna___)

            On May 1, 1866, post-Civil War racial tensions erupted into a riot in Memphis, Tennessee. Forty-six African Americans and two white people were killed, 75 people were injured, and at least five black women were raped. One of those women was the formerly enslaved woman Frances Thompson. Thompson testified to a congressional investigating committee headed by Elihu Washburne about her sexual assault in late May.

            If her story stopped here, it would already be a remarkable one. Before the end of the slavery, enslaved people could not testify in a court of law—especially not against a white person. Moreover, before the war, there was no law against raping an enslaved woman. Thought of as chattel, as human property, enslaved people were not thought to be able to give or withhold consent. Enslavers could use their property however they wanted, including raping their enslaved females. Stereotypes of the black woman as a sexually insatiable Jezebel reinforced racist white beliefs that enslaved women could not be raped because they always desired sex. So, testifying in a court of law about her assault and rape already makes Thompson a remarkable woman in American history.

            But Thomspon’s story does not end with her 1866 testimony. A decade later, in July of 1876, based on vague “suspicions,” Thompson was arrested and fined $50 for being a man dressed as a woman, with her biological sex being confirmed as male by four physicians.[1] Thompson could not pay the fine, so the judge assigned her to the city’s chain-gang and kept imprisoned for 100 days. Newspapers across the country published articles on the scandal, ranging from moderately neutral recitations of fact to outraged editorials decrying Thompson’s “utter depravity” and loss of credibility as a witness to the Memphis riots.[2] The newspapers who wrote about Thompson saw her as being doubly guilty—of being black, and of transgressing gender norms.

            After the Civil War, racist whites accused African Americans of failing to adhere to American gender norms. They claimed that black women were hypersexual in a time when women were meant to be chaste. These gendered accusations were inherently racial, as you can see when you look closer at the press’s treatment of Thompson. In all of the articles about Thompson, her race is a prominent detail. The St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat immediately identifies Thompson as “Francis Thompson (colored)” and describes her using racist terms like “the thick-lipped, foul-mouthed scamp,” “black brute” and “negro scoundrel.”[3] Two articles in the Chicago Tribune refer to Thompson as a “notorious negro,” the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat refers to Thompson as “dusky,” and the Galveston Daily News groups Thompson in with “depraved negroes” who lie about Southern racial violence.[4] These articles ostensibly about Thompson’s cross-dressing highlight Thompson’s race so distinctly because it supported conservative white claims that African Americans did not adhere to normal gender expectations. The supposed gender divergence of freed people like Thompson supported white arguments that they did not deserve political and social rights that African Americans claimed in Reconstruction America, reflecting the closing of Reconstruction freedoms for black people.

            It is clear that Thompson’s race was the primary factor determining her harsh treatment in the press because white women who similarly transgressed gender norms were treated more positively. For example, in 1873, a white Missouri woman named Mollie Sherwood left her non-paying job at a hotel, dressed like a man, stole a horse, and took a job as a mail-carrier.[5] Eventually, her co-workers began to suspect that she was not really a man, calling her “an hermaphrodite, and similar names.” She was arrested, and at the time of the article’s writing, was awaiting trial for horse theft. However, unlike reporters who covered Thompson, the article’s author did not use words like “notorious,” “brute,” or “scoundrel” to describe Sherwood. Instead, the author noted her beauty, describing her as the “pretty blonde of the White river valley.” Sherwood’s morality was never in question; instead, she was lauded as a beacon of integrity by those who knew her. The writer described Sherwood’s cross-dressing as evidence of her sense of adventure and social progressiveness. He commented on “the advanced ideas of our young heroine” and how she had “more or less of dash and romance about her.”

            While the black Thompson was called morally depraved, untrustworthy, hideous and hated as a result of her gendered divergence, the white Sherwood was lauded as an exciting, beautiful, romantic heroine. Partially because of her whiteness, Sherwood’s transgressions were exciting and light-hearted. Thompson’s threatened the social and racial order of America, and so she was vilified in the press.

            In the wake of the Civil War, testifying about sexual assault was how Thompson and other black women asserted their new citizenship and right to bodily protection. These women challenged racist white beliefs that black women were always sexually available, and took advantage of the burgeoning freedoms that Reconstruction offered. However, only a few years after the war’s end, these opportunities and freedoms were deteriorated by racist white violence against African Americans throughout the South. Refusing to allow African Americans to step outside of racial and gendered norms, whites strictly dictated how African Americans could live their lives in public and private. When freed people, like Thompson, did not adhere to these norms, whites used violence—sometimes through the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes through prison labor—to punish them for their aberrations. By arresting, imprisoning, and essentially murdering Thompson, white Memphians showed that, to them, Reconstruction was over. Freed people would no longer be allowed to define their lives. They must follow racial and gendered dictums or be punished.

[1] “Thompson’s Joke,” Chicago Tribune, July 12 1876.

[2] “Under False Colors,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, July 15, 1876.

[3] “‘The Bloody Shirt,’” Galveston Daily News, July 27, 1876.

[4] “Grist From the Outrage Mill,” Harrisburg Patriot, August 17, 1876, “Telegraphic Notes” Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1876, “Under False Colors” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, July 15, 1876, “‘The Bloody Shirt,’” Galveston Daily News, July 27, 1876.

[5] The Boy Girl,” Morning Republican, June 25, 1873.

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