Sept. 3, 1944: It's a damp evening in the Alabama black belt, nearly midnight, but services at Rock Hill Holiness Church in the small town of Abbeville have just let out. Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old sharecropper, sets out along the town's fertile peanut plantations, accompanied for the walk home by two other worshippers from the African-American congregation. Moments later, a green Chevrolet rolls by — and their routine journey takes a horrifying turn.
Wielding knives and guns, seven white men get out of the car, according to Taylor and witnesses from a state investigation of the case. One shoves Taylor in the backseat; the rest squeeze in after her and ride off. Her panicked friends run to tell the sheriff.
After parking in a deserted grove of pecan trees, the men order the young wife and mother out at gunpoint, shouting at her to undress. Six of them rape Taylor that night. Once finished, they drive her back to the road, ordering her out again before roaring off into the darkness.
Days after the brutal attack, Taylor's story traveled through word of mouth, catching the attention of a Montgomery NAACP activist named Rosa Parks. A seasoned anti-rape crusader, who focused on the sexual assaults of black women that were commonplace in the segregated South, Parks would eventually help bring the case international notice. Despite her efforts, however, in Jim Crow-era Alabama, Taylor's assailants were never punished.
It's curious, to say the least, that Taylor's name is not mentioned in history books. While most analyses of circumstances that inspired the civil rights movement focus on black men — being lynched or railroaded into jail, or facing down segregationists — the stories of countless black women like Recy Taylor, who were raped by white men during the same era, have gone understated, if not overlooked entirely.
Nearly 70 years later, having such a brutal attack swept under the rug is still a source of pain for a surviving victim.
"Wasn't nothing done about it," Taylor, now 91, told The Root in a phone interview from her Florida home. "The sheriff never even said he was sorry it happened. I think more people should know about it … but ain't nobody [in Abbeville] saying nothing."
Organizing a National Movement
At the time, others — more than she ever knew — did speak out in defense of Taylor. Her brother Robert Corbitt, now 74, was just 8 years old when his eldest sister was kidnapped, but he remembers that night well, and all that followed.
He recalls crying on the porch of their childhood home as their father, Benny Corbitt, went out looking for her. "He came back by the house about three times, and each time, his shirt was wringing with sweat," he told The Root. "Nobody slept that night."
Two days later, he remembers, someone threw a firebomb at the home of Taylor, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. "After that, they moved in with us," said Corbitt. "At night, my father would sit in a tree and guard the house with a shotgun."
The following month, in a farce of a grand jury trial at which none of the assailants even showed up, an all-white, all-male jury elected not to indict.
The family didn't know it back then, but Parks, dispatched by the Montgomery NAACP to investigate the case, was setting the gears in motion for a far-reaching campaign. "Miss Parks told me to go with her to Montgomery until things were clear," said Taylor, who stayed for three months in a rooming house, arranged for by Parks, before returning home. "She was trying to get something done. I'm not sure what. I was young and didn't know nothing about law and stuff like that."
Parks saw an opportunity to hold up Taylor's story as a national example of Southern injustice. She partnered with other progressive groups — including the now mostly forgotten Southern Negro Youth Congress, the defense team of the Scottsboro Boys, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other labor organizers, as well as communist networks — to form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. The coalition became a national movement that the Chicago Defender called "the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade," and daily stories on the case were printed in newspapers across the nation, from Baltimore to Los Angeles.
But not in the tiny town of Abbeville, where Taylor's family was largely unaware of the proceedings. Corbitt had quite a shock, years later, as a soldier stationed in Germany. "A German guy asked me where I was from, and when I told him Alabama, he started to tell a story he knew about that happened there," he said. "He was talking about my sister."
Danielle McGuire, an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University and author of the recently published book At the Dark End of the Street, documenting Taylor's story as well as others from the civil rights era, says that the broader goal of the Committee for Equal Justice was to quash the legacy of Jim Crow. "They used the horror of her story to highlight the hypocrisy of the United States — at war around the world for democracy, and yet there was no democracy at home," McGuire told The Root. "They might have not seen Recy Taylor as sophisticated enough to be a spokesperson for the campaign, so a lot of this was organized without the family's knowledge."
The effort included a massive letter-writing campaign to Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks in order to shame the state into bringing Taylor's abductors to trial. Worried about the impact on Alabama's reputation, Sparks arranged an investigation and even got admission statements from the assailants. "He and the attorney general believed the guys were guilty, and they were ready to do something," explained McGuire. The only problem was that in Alabama law, a criminal case can't proceed without an indictment in the county where the crime happened.
"They just were not going to indict their neighbors and sons in Abbeville," said McGuire. There was no further hearing.
A Forgotten History
As the years passed, talk of the incident faded out. Somewhere along the way, it seems that history also forgot Recy Taylor and black women like her, many of whom also testified about the crimes committed against them. Although some African-American historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have cited incidents of rape as catalysts for the Great Migration, it hasn't been part of the civil rights story in the major historical world.
"I think that has to do with, on some level, historians having a narrow focus on what 'civil rights' means," said McGuire. "It has always meant voter registration and desegregation of public accommodations and schools, but in the 1940s in particular, the movement was really focused on human rights."
Meanwhile, Taylor and her family did their best to forget and move on. Corbitt eventually settled in New York City, but during a visit home in 1999, he and his sister got to talking about the rape. "She started to cry," he said. "I didn't realize she was still hurting that bad. She tried to hold it inside all those years, but she talked freely to me. When I retired in 2001 and moved back to Abbeville, I decided to devote my time to trying to find some way to help her get justice."
Corbitt spent days at the library, poring over microfilms of newspapers from the era. Nothing turned up but missing pages. The county courthouse had no record of the incident. He had nearly given up when, in 2008, he typed his sister's name into an online search engine. Up popped an essay by Danielle McGuire referencing the case. Finally: historical recognition that this had happened.
"The article said the name of the man that held the gun on her and forced her to get in the car," Corbitt said. "Just exposing this man's name was a little measure of justice."
After meeting McGuire and learning more about Abbeville's handling of his sister's assault, he redirected his anger from the rapists to the police. "All of the men admitted that they kidnapped and raped her, but the police covered for them and said they didn't do it," he said. "That was a hard pill to swallow."
Corbitt doesn't think he's asking for much these days. "I'd like a public apology from the city of Abbeville and the state of Alabama," he said. "Most of the white people here don't know anything about what happened, because the police kept it such a secret."
It's unclear what legal options the family has today, but because Alabama has no statute of limitations on rape, McGuire posits that Taylor's case could potentially be reopened if the assailants are still alive. "There may be a possibility that they could sue the county or sheriff's department for obstruction of justice, given the cover-up," she said. "A creative attorney could certainly find a way."
As for Taylor, she agrees with her brother that an apology is the least anyone could do. She also blames herself for some of the hush-hush nature of her story. "I should have talked more about it too myself," she said. "At the time, I didn't want nobody to think something like that happened to me. I thought folks were going to talk about me and say, 'You was raped.' I was ashamed of it, and I didn't know how to go about talking about it."
She pauses, lost for a moment in her thoughts. "It was a long time ago," she says finally. "But I still think something should have been done about it."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.