Producing Deviants: Black Women, Crime, and Capitalism in Reconstruction America

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The exploitation and criminalization of lower class black women in the Reconstruction era reinforced the hegemony of an emerging capitalist racial order, which was still adapting to the immense changes brought about by the Civil War.

Table of Contents

I

When considering the United States after the Civil War, many historians discuss a nation divided by bitter regional conflicts. As a result of the Civil War, the United States experienced drastic changes to regional economies. Historians often discuss the economic implications of the Civil War in separate terms for Whites and former slaves. For Whites in the North, the Civil War was an economic improvement, while most Whites in the South were plagued with economic instability. Emancipated slaves in the South were released from bondage, some migrating to the North in search of work opportunities. While the post Civil War economy of the North prospered, the Southern economy suffered as it struggled to recover from the emancipation of its primary labor force. The consequences of the Civil War for emancipated slaves and Whites were far more intertwined than historians have emphasized, however. Despite the differing economic situations, both the North and South benefited from the labor of Black people, specifically Black women, and their exclusion.

So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up…He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world…Nanny, 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston

Black female criminalization during the Reconstruction Period was a crucial phenomenon that shaped the future of capitalism in the United States. The labor of this underclass salvaged the Southern economy, while exclusion from the Northern labor economy strengthened notions of Whiteness and supremacy. The criminalization of emancipated female slaves was an essential process in stabilizing capitalism during the Reconstruction Era in the United States, as it excluded Black women from entering a lucrative labor force in the North. The exclusion of Black women from American society and their criminalization were reciprocal. As Black Codes were enacted to criminalize Black behavior, resulting in imprisonment and return to forced labor, imprisonment functioned as incapacitation. Criminalization and imprisonment were a profitable solution to the “Black problem.”

For Black men and women, this meant being imprisoned for petty theft, or crimes of poverty. For Black women, this especially meant a policing of sexuality, creating a series of devastating stereotypes about Black female sexuality and crime, which justified their disproportional imprisonment in relation to White women. Furthermore, these stereotypes shaped their experiences inside prisons and the work they were forced to perform.

The production of criminals, deviants, and, ultimately, an underclass, made Capitalism feasible in a war torn nation divided by regional conflict. With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the South faced a severe economic crisis due to the gradual emancipation of slaves and the rapid decline of the cotton-based economy. In an effort to salvage the antebellum slave labor economy, White plantation owners offered their former slaves an exchange of labor for basic sustenance, housing, and very little pay. While some former slaves accepted this offer, others saw emancipation as an opportunity to abandon plantation life and navigate the United States as free people.

In the South, freedom meant increased policing and violence against Black women, which resulted in a series of Black Codes criminalizing Black activity.1 Black women who migrated to the North in an effort to escape the racist traditions of the South searched for work opportunities in the vast economy. However, Black female migrants found themselves socially isolated and unable to penetrate the predominantly White workforce they encountered. The increasing number of Black women in cities like New York and Philadelphia during the late nineteenth century was an alarming problem for Whites and the settled Black population.2

Free Black female presence in the North and South was sexualized, criminalized, and exploited, leading to the formation of an underclass of women desperate to survive unfavorable conditions. This production of sexualized criminals was a necessary process in securing the success of Capitalism in unstable conditions.

II

Several historians have directly and indirectly written about the making of Black female deviants during the Reconstruction Period. From literature on convict leasing in the South, to the criminalization of Black women in the North (particularly New York and Philadelphia), to the relevance of prisons in the twenty-first century, historians are grappling with questions of gender, race, crime and imprisonment, and their relation to the political economy of the United States. Using David Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery, Cheryl D. Hicks’ Talk With You Like a Woman, Kali Gross’ Black Amazon, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? to investigate the racialized and gendered implications for criminalization in the nineteenth century, the connections to capitalism become clear.

In early American Prison historiography, Black women’s experiences are often marginalized or hypersexualized in comparison to Black men’s experiences. David Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice offers an extensive chronology of Black criminalization in post Civil War Mississippi. This text provides valuable information about the economics of convict leasing, labor farms, and the production of Black crime. However, Oshinsky dedicates only five pages to Black Women’s experiences on Parchman Farm — the first state penitentiary in Mississippi — and their relationship to crime. Perhaps this is because Black women never exceeded more than 5% of Mississippi’s prison population prior to 1970.3 Nonetheless, the limited narrative in chapter seven of Worse Than Slavery, ‘The Other Parchman’, provides insight about the lives of Black women at Parchman Farm.

Unlike most White women, Black women in Mississippi during the Reconstruction Period were policed and arrested for crimes of poverty, like petty theft and prostitution.4 Similar to Black men, Black women were policed and imprisoned systematically in comparison to their White counterparts. In contrast to white women, Black women’s crimes and experiences at Parchman Farm were gendered and sexualized; whereas the violent nature of male crime, Black and White, were presented as normal Mississippi behavior.5

In fact, Black women are presented as posing a threat to White men…

Though the population of women at Parchman Farm was small, they were subjected to rape and made into sexual objects. This is noted in accounts from Black female prisoners, who through song expressed their sexualized experiences at Parchman Farm.6 Black women were also agents in these encounters that used sexuality as an exchange for prison economy.7 Some women found this relationship useful, not only for negotiations and agency, but because it also fulfilled their own sexual desires. In Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, she offers a useful analysis of this situation, arguing that the abusive nature of these sexual relationships contributed to ideas about Black women’s hypersexual criminality.8

The primary distinction between White and Black female criminals is the sexualization and masculinization of Black female crime. Ideologies about Black female sexuality, their masculinity, and criminal nature were also popular in the North. Cheryl Hicks cites primary sources in her chapter ‘To Live a Fuller and Freer Life’ that portray Black women as more dangerous than White women. 9 In fact, Black women are presented as posing a threat to White men as they fell prey to Black women’s sexuality. The notion that Black women in the North were more dangerous than White women, and their sexuality a threat to White men, coincides with previously mentioned ideas about Black female savagery. In the North and the South, Black women were masculinized and hypersexualized.

Masculine Black women were not worthy of the same protection of the law that White women received. Kali Gross dates the legislative results of this relationship as early as 1705, citing laws in Pennsylvania that listed punishments for the rape of White women.10 Raping White women warranted different punishments for Black and White men, however the rape of Black women went unacknowledged all together. As a result, Black women were left to protect themselves, and often punished in the process. The irony is that the law did not protect Black women’s lives because they were an unworthy caste of deviants. Yet the very act of self-defense, a defiance of the gender norms and expectations of the early twentieth century, supported misconceptions about Black female masculinity.

According to Oshinsky, Black women who were arrested for more serious offenses were usually involved in domestic disputes that resulted in a death. This gendered understanding of violence, and the presentation of violent behavior as “natural,” perpetuated stereotypes about Black women as masculine characters. These stereotypes complicate notions of Black femininity; they equate the savagery of Black men and women, but warrant different treatment and punishment. This response relegated Black women’s behavior — which would otherwise be “natural” for men — to the deviant category.

The imprisonment of the Black female deviant was justified because not only was she a violent savage like Black men, but she also used her sexuality to manipulate men.11 This pattern of Black female sexualization took place in the South and North, on Parchman Farm and in New York and Philadelphia. At Parchman Farm, many Black female prisoners were victims of domestic abuse. After being imprisoned for ending their abuse, Black women often became sexual objects for prison officials. In the North, Black women were imprisoned under similar circumstances.

In Philadelphia in 1908, two Black women, Mamie Brown and Helen Thomas, were accused of kidnapping (or luring with sex) and murdering an intoxicated White man, Anthony Madden.12 Contrary to the media’s portrayal of the women as coercive sexual predators, Brown and Thomas claimed Madden’s death was an accident and a result of self-defense. The Northern media’s portrayal of Brown and Thomas as manipulative perpetrators, instead of regretful victims, highlights racist and sexualized perceptions of Black women during the Reconstruction Period. While the United States failed to acknowledge Black female vulnerability, trends of domestic violence continued.

Nearly two decades later, Mamie Spencer, a Black housewife, was sentenced to two years at Auburn Prison for killing her husband in a domestic dispute.13 During her time at Auburn, Spencer favored the educational aspects of her imprisonment, rather than the menial labor, like laundering. Spencer’s disinterest in manual reproductive labor not only disrupted Black women’s relegated tasks inside prisons, but expectations for Black women on the outside as well.

The consistent failures to recognize Black women’s vulnerability — to rape, abuse, and harmful misconceptions — persisted and secured their position as an underclass. These failures, resulting in the devaluation of Black female life, are what created a caste of expendable labor that transcended regional conflicts and stabilized the growth of capitalism during the Reconstruction Era.

III

During imprisonment at Parchman Farm, Black women were charged with sexual, physical, and reproductive labor, including the sexual exchanges previously mentioned, as well as working the cotton fields, canning vegetables, and producing clothing, bedding, and mattresses for the farm.14 Black women as a labor force were essential to maintaining the function of Parchman Farm, to incapacitate the free Black population and profit from their expendable labor. Their physical work in the cotton fields alongside Black men, served as a direct economic benefit to a Southern economy that relied on cotton even after the Civil War. The more cotton Black laborers cultivated, the more Parchman Farm increased its profits.

Some Black women confronted their employers about low wages, which resulted in their arrest.

Black women’s reproductive labor, the canning of foods, producing mattresses, bedding, and clothing, provided basic sustenance for prisoners that directly contributed to their labor. This domestic work Black female prisoners performed kept the costs for necessary goods low, while increasing Parchman Farm’s profit margin. Without the gendered division of labor between prisoners at Parchman, specifically the gendered reproductive labor of Black women, the profitability of Black inmate labor would have greatly decreased.

In the North, the majority of Black female migrants were limited to the realm of domestic servitude and received very little pay. Working in White homes, Black women performed similar reproductive labor as the women at Parchman Farm. The reproductive labor on Parchman Farm maintained the profitability and function of imprisonment, whereas the domestic labor in White homes maintained the reproduction of the White middle to upper-class family. While Black women were grossly underpaid for their reproductive labor, their work allowed White men and women to enter the thriving workforce Black women had been isolated from. Consequently, most Black women lived in stagnant poverty desperate for a livable income.

Some Black women confronted their employers about low wages, which resulted in their arrest.15 Other Black women supplemented their income by sporadically stealing small valuables from the homes they worked in or turning to sex work. All of these responses to imposed poverty resulted in the criminalization of Black women. The exclusion from a legal and commercial work force contributed to the makings of a deviant underclass that needed to be imprisoned. The labor of this underclass inside and outside of prisons strengthened the prospects of capitalism as their reproductive labor allowed others, especially White people, to enter what was an expanding industrial labor market during Reconstruction in America.

IV

Historians have largely overlooked the extensive consequences of Black women’s exploitation as a working class in the United States. The racialized, gendered, and criminalized experiences of Black women in Reconstruction America have implications far beyond their isolated position in gender and prison historiographies. Most Reconstruction Era prison historiographies are dominated by the male experience, with a modest selection of texts on women. The available texts on Black women necessarily focus on the gendered and racialized realities; however, many lack a substantive analysis of the political-economic implications of their imprisonment — that is, an analysis of the ways in which the labor of incarcerated workers lead to the reproduction of a mode of production. The significance of Black women’s exploited, usually forced, labor during this transformative period in American history is understated, if not completely ignored.

Angela Davis’ text Are Prisons Obsolete? is a major contribution to the conversation of Black female imprisonment, labor, and political economy. Despite her exceptional analyses, Davis’ work is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation about Black female labor history. Her work notes the political-economic relationship between labor and imprisonment, but does not emphasize Black women’s role in stabilizing the American economy.

Davis’ work is also necessary in this conversation because it provokes the audience to imagine life without prisons. A similar imagination would also seek a life without capitalism. For without prisons, capitalism would likely collapse, as prisons maintain the reproduction of the racialized and gendered social divisions that capitalist society relies on. Without the sexualized criminalization of Black women, the production of a deviant underclass during the Reconstruction period, capitalism in the United States would not exist today. The reproductive labor of Black deviants was a substantial part of capitalism that was undesirable but necessary labor. In the process, Black women’s lives were devalued, making them an expendable labor force. Black women did not profit from their own reproductive work, but work farms, prisons, and White families benefited greatly. Subsequently, work farms, prisons, and Whites in the industrial labor force reproduced capitalism, with its foundations rooted in forced Black female labor.

The same patterns and relationships presented as historical evidence in this paper serve as evidence in the present moment. Criminalization and imprisonment in modern American society also serve as a function to capitalism, as it continues to exclude poor and racialized members of society, establishing and maintaining an underclass. Furthermore, the modern underclass of prisoners are exploited, as numerous corporations profit from their imprisonment.16 Although the makings of the modern underclass are much more nuanced, the function remains the same. In order for capitalism to survive and reproduce itself, it must thrive off the isolation, criminalization, and labor of a deviant underclass. In order to destroy the exploitation of the underclass, to destroy class — including harmful understandings of gender and race — prisons and capitalism must also be destroyed in the process.

About the Author
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Kc Itohan

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Kc Itohan is an artist and historian percolating in the United States. Her interests include gender, sexuality, and labor in the African diaspora, sex work, sadness, and complicating emotions through sound.

  1. Black Codes were introduced shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865, in an effort to maintain social and economic order. Including The Vagrancy and Entitlements Acts, the Black Codes were a series of legislations that limited the mobility of free Black people.
  2. Hicks, Cheryl D. Talk with You like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 30. Historian W.E.B. Du Bois described this population of Black female migrants as “excess.”
  3. Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York City, New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996), 169.
  4. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery, 169.
  5. Oshinsky, “Emancipation,” in Worse than Slavery. Oshinsky argues in chapter one that the violent nature of Mississippi culture is “natural.” While this is presented as “natural” behavior, it becomes masculinized when Black women exhibiting similar behavior are considered deviants or “savage”.
  6. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery, 170.
  7. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery, 170. Some Black women on Parchman were prostitutes for prison officials, were given privileges, and even earned tips. Prison economy is used to define exchanges ranging from favors from officials to other valuables necessary for prison bartering.
  8. Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 68.
  9. Hicks, Talk with You like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 49.
  10. Gross, Kali N. Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 22.
  11. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery, 169. A primary source refers to Black women as “savage” much like Black men.
  12. Gross, Colored Amazons, 102-05.
  13. Hicks, Talk with You like a Woman, 129-30.
  14. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery, 172.
  15. Hicks, Worse than Slavery, 40. Sarah Vaughn was fined and arrested in 1901 when she confronted her employers about her unpaid wages.
  16. Angela Davis’ chapter on the Prison Industrial Complex outlines the modern political-economic benefits of prisons in a capitalistic society. A few of the beneficiaries of imprisonment range from the Corrections Corporation of America to Dial Soap, Sodexo, and AT&T.

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Cite this article as: Kc Itohan, "Producing Deviants: Black Women, Crime, and Capitalism in Reconstruction America," Praxis, November 2, 2015, https://praxis-research.info/2015/11/producing-deviants-black-women-crime-and-capitalism-in-reconstruction-america/.