Day 1 of White History Month: Imaginary Black-on-White Crime
[Images: Newspaper Article on Rosewood Massacre, Newspaper Article on Scottsboro Boys [x], Boston Herald Cover feating Charles Stuart [x], Conrad Zdzierak and Surveillance Photo of Conrad Zdzierak wearing a mask to appear Black during a robbery [x], Ashley Smith [x], Police Officer Robert Ralston [x], Ashley Todd hoax [x], Bethany Storro [x]]
White-on-Black hoaxes follow a standard pattern. First, law enforcement officials are called into action. They are asked to protect an innocent White person from further harm and to apprehend a widely perceived threat, a menacing Black man. Second, the incident arouses sympathy and results in calls for swift and stiff punishment. Third, even after the hoax is uncovered, the image of the criminalblackman lingers and becomes more embedded in our collective racial consciousness. - Katheryn Russell-Brown, The Color of Crime
White Americans have ascribed criminality to Blackness for centuries. There is a long pattern of blaming (and punishing) Black Americans for crimes they never committed, furthering this notion. While the aspect of race was noted when Conor Zdzierak disguised himself as a Black man, blaming Black Americans for crimes is part of a long-running historical theme in the United States. The trend relies upon ideas of inherent Black criminality and white virtue - particularly the Black Male Rapist and Pure White Woman. False accusations and racial hoaxes have led to terrible consequences: death (particularly lynchings), riots, imprisonment, and economic losses.
Disclaimer: Rape accusations are almost always true [pdf]. One notable exception is a historical pattern of false accusations against Black men for raping white women, often resulting in violent consequences.
1923 Rosewood Massacre
The Rosewood massacre was not unlike many other historical cases that lead to anti-Black violence. In 1923, a white woman named Francis Taylor, claimed that she had been beaten and raped by a Black man. This story quickly turned into rumors of rape and assault. In reality, she had been beaten by her lover, John Bradley, but the Sheriff took the story at face value; he neglected to question Sarah Carrier, who had been working for Francis Taylor.
The Sheriff instead suggested that it was a supposedly escaped prisoner, Jesse Hunter. A large mob of white men gathered; it amassed hundreds, largely from the neighboring town of Sumner, but with men coming from as far as 200 miles away to join in. They first tortured and lynched an innocent Black man named Sam Carter. The mob then proceeded to Rosewood, claiming that Jesse Hunter was hiding with his cousin, Sylvester Carrier - a Black man from an influential Rosewood family. It was certainly no coincidence that Rosewood was an exceptional Black community that was self-sufficient and relatively prosperous.
The white mob proceeded to kill both Sylvester and his mother, Sarah Carrier - the same woman who worked for Francis Taylor and had claimed that she had been beaten by her lover, not a Black man. They continued onwards over the next few days, killing more Rosewood residents and eventually burning Rosewood to the ground. A grand jury found “insufficient evidence” to prosecute members of the mob. The surviving residents of Rosewood were left with nothing. Families were scattered and forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Victoria Price and Ruby Bates and the Scottsboro Boys [Timeline]
In 1931, two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, engaged in sexual activity on a train. In order to avoid charges, they accused nine Black teenage boys of raping them. Within days the boys were indicted by a grand jury, and in the following two weeks, all nine of the boys (ranging in age from 13 to 19) were convicted of rape and sentenced to death.
There was no physical evidence of rape, and a letter was uncovered in 1932 where Ruby Bates admitted to her boyfriend that she was not raped. In 1933 she testified that she was not raped.
Despite this, the sentences of the boys were converted only to lengthy sentences (from 20 years to life). None of the convictions were dropped until 1937, when Roy Wright, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery, and Willie Roberson were exonerated. The remaining men still had to serve sentences until they were paroled (and one briefly escaped). The last three of the Scottsboro boys who had not received a dropped conviction or pardon were only posthumously pardoned in 2013.
Contemporary Cases – Racial Hoaxes
Racial hoaxes - crimes that are fabricated or blamed on someone because of their race - are not only committed by white people, but if you search for any of the names below, you are likely to find portrayals of them as pained, complex figures. You will find their heinous actions attributed to mental illness, personal troubles, and childhood trauma.
Legal scholar Katheryn K. Russell-Brown wrote extensively about racial hoaxes in her book Color of Crime, documenting cases between 1987 and 1996; she found that 70 percent of the time, racial hoaxes involved white accusers. Not only have ordinary citizens falsified reports of Black criminals, but police officers and judicial representatives have invented imaginary Black criminals as well.
Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, and with the help of his brother Matthew Stuart, proceeded to make the situation look like a robbery gone wrong. He blamed the incident on an imaginary Black man, igniting racial tensions in Boston and leading to police largely occupying the neighborhood of Mission Hill. He eventually picked Willie Bennett out of a lineup, leading to calls for Bennett to receive the death penalty. Charles Stuart’s brother eventually turned his brother in; soon after, Charles Stuart committed suicide.
In 1994, Susan Smith claimed that she had been carjacked and her two children abducted by a Black man, starting a frantic manhunt. While her hoax quickly unraveled, she exploited racial stereotypes and fears to cover up that she murdered her two young sons.
In October 2008, Ashley Todd (a McCain campaign volunteer) claimed to have been robbed at knifepoint by a Black man, who upon seeing her McCain bumper sticker, carved a backwards ‘B’ into her face. Todd only admitted the story was false and the wound self-inflicted when surveillance photos contradicted her account. The incident sparked racial tensions nationwide.
Philadelphia police officer Robert Ralston claimed that while questioning two Black men, one of them shot him in the shoulder. The story never quite added up and the evidence was non-existent, but he still managed to launch a manhunt and inflame racial tensions. Weeks later, it was revealed that his wound was self-inflicted. Ralston was to cover the cost of the manhunt, but did not face criminal charges.
In 2010, Bethany Storro claimed that a random Black woman approached her saying “Hey, pretty little girl, want to take a drink of this?” and proceeded to throw acid on her face. Of course, no such Black woman existed, but police still spent hundreds of hours questioning and detaining Black women, all while sympathetic strangers donated money to Storro. Her account undoubtedly relied upon the dynamic between Black women and white women to gain sympathy.