Excerpted From: Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, “Make Washington Safe for Negro Womanhood”: The Politics of Police Brutality in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945, 59 California Western Law Review 87 (Fall, 2022) (518 Footnotes) (Full Document)


MaryElizabethMurphyIn March 2020, white police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, wielded a battering ram to enter the apartment of a twenty-six-year-old Black woman named Breonna Taylor. At the time, she was lying in bed with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. As the situation escalated, the police officers removed Taylor's front door from its hinges, prompting Walker to shoot one officer in the thigh. In response, white officers fired their guns with abandon, shooting Breonna Taylor five times. The Jefferson County coroner concluded that Taylor likely died within one minute of these five gunshots and could not have been saved.

The slaying of Breonna Taylor did not generate news stories until three months later, when white police officers arrested a Black man, George Floyd, and pinned him to the ground until he lost consciousness and died. The visceral video footage of Floyd's death sparked global protests in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet while many of the most heavily covered stories of police violence involve black male victims, Black women also have been longstanding victims of police violence, and should also be centered in the fight against racism. Senator Kamala D. Harris, then the only Black woman in the Senate, and now the Vice President of the United States, tweeted, “We cannot forget about black women in our quest for justice.” Harris also tapped into activism against gendered police brutality by tweeting #SayHerName--a hashtag launched by the African American Policy Forum in 2015 as a way to commemorate the Black women and girls killed at the hands of white law enforcement. But the movement against gendered police brutality has a much longer history, and a critical early effort demonstrates why we cannot lose sight of the particular threat of police violence against Black women.

In 1933, an editorial in the Black-owned Washington Tribune titled “Women, Bravery, Freedom” recounted the remarks of former Alabama Senator Thomas Heflin. In 1930, Heflin entered into the Congressional Record a letter exchange he had with a news outlet in which Heflin had referred to women as the “crowning glory of God's creation.” Heflin's reference to “women” was racially coded to signify white women, and in this speech, he linked their protection and purity to bans on interracial marriage. Assessing the contradictions in Heflin's argument, the editorial remarked, “We too look upon our women with high regard.” It then described a recent episode of police brutality against two Black women--sixty-five-year-old Cornelia Diggs and her forty-eight-year-old daughter, Dedia Coates--in Washington, D.C. The editorial asked why, in “this land of the brave, where women are the crowning glory of God's creation, two policemen--either drunk with liquor or authority--force[d] their way into the privacy of a sober residence” and attacked two women While Diggs had witnessed “seventy years of racial oppression,” she had never experienced the “forces of the law visited on her.” The officers beat Diggs and then “dragged [her] by the hair out of the house” to arrest her. The editorial ironically concluded that the brutality inflicted on Diggs and Coates represented another example of the “crowning Glory of God's creation.” Writers at the Washington Tribune reflected on the hypocrisy of figures like Senator Heflin, who vociferously defended the virtues of “women,” but turned a blind eye toward the rising levels of white violence against Black women in Washington, D.C.

The early 1900s were a tumultuous period for Black women in Washington D.C. During the late 1920s, the number of reported cases of interracial police brutality against African American women in Washington, D.C., began to climb. These patterns of police violence often affected Black men and women differently. Between 1928 and 1938, white police officers shot and killed fifty citizens in the city, forty of whom were African American men. While white police officers did kill Black women and girls during this period, the police subjected at least twenty-nine to a range of violent behaviors--including street harassment, racial epithets, physical assaults, and intrusions into their houses. In addition to these abusive encounters, white police officers and detectives in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department often employed a negligent, double standard by refusing to conduct thorough investigations when Black women were abused, raped, or murdered.

Interracial police violence created a culture of fear for Black Washingtonians. Known victims of police brutality lived in every quadrant of the city, ranged in age from fifteen to sixty-eight, and represented diverse class backgrounds. African American women living in the nation's capital were deeply connected to police brutality--whether they were victims, litigants, bystanders, family members of an injured party, or political activists.

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Black Washingtonians politicized interracial police brutality in the 1930s and 1940s to hold police accountable for their actions. Officers of the Metropolitan Police Department were contracted to uphold the law and were subject to trial boards, but they were rarely punished for their brutal behavior. For example, in 1931, Officers Sirola and Vivian Landrum barged into the house of Henry Johnson, a veteran of World War I who worked as a Pullman porter. Both officers beat him with a Blackjack and broke his skull. Johnson sued the officers in Police Court for damages, and Sirola and Landrum were suspended from duty. But in Criminal Court, Landrum was charged with simple assault and fined $100.00; Sirola was acquitted. Two years later, in 1933, Detective Frank Ashley similarly went unpunished for using iron clamps to force George Mahoney, a Black man, to confess to a crime. These examples demonstrate that Trial Boards rarely held white police officers accountable for their brutal behavior toward African Americans. Black Washingtonians worked to plead their cases in Police Court, pressured the Board of Commissioners and the United States Congress to investigate officer abuse, and pushed for the appointment of African American judges to Police Court. Black Washingtonians recognized that there were avenues of accountability in police violence that did not exist for civilian violence. At this time in the 1930s and 1940s, prosecutors were not filing charges against civilian white men engaging in violence against Black women. Civilian violence against Black women was a serious problem. Women faced danger in every corner of the city, including worksites, the homes where they labored as domestic servants, on streets and alleys, in streetcars, buses, and taxis, in places of public amusement, in schools and hospitals, and in their own houses.

Both the federal and local governments supervised law enforcement in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s. The city's three-person Board of Commissioners appointed the police commissioner, who hired the officers, while the Congressional Committee of the District of Columbia approved the budget and oversaw the administrative workings of the department. In 1920, 995 white men and 38 Black men worked as police officers in the city. After citizens were arrested, they could plead their case in Police Court in front of one of the four white male presiding judges in Northwest Washington. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Police Court was busy. An article in the Washington Post reported that the “present congestion of the District Police Court interferes with adequate and sufficient consideration” of many cases. If Black citizens were brave enough to plead their innocence in Police Court, they faced long delays and crowded conditions. When citizens believed that an officer had demonstrated abusive behavior and had not been reprimanded, they could appeal to the Police Trial Board and request a hearing. At the hearing, a committee would recommend whether that officer should be suspended, pay a fine, receive a warning, or be dismissed from the force. Even though officers rarely faced significant punishments for violence against citizens, it was deeply important that Black Washingtonians exercised their citizenship rights in the nation's capital by appearing in Police Court and appealing to the Trial Board for justice.

Historians who have examined police brutality against Black citizens in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s have not yet fully analyzed the broad spectrum of violence against Black women during that time. In his study of the National Negro Congress, Professor Erik Gellman documents Black citizens' campaigns against police brutality in Washington, D.C., but he centers the majority of his study on the experiences of male shooting victims and male activists who worked to reduce this violence. Gellman argues that Black Washingtonians' experiences with police brutality were similar to the lynching that occurred in the United States South Racial violence in both settings had the effect of bolstering white supremacy. However, focusing on victims of police shootings obscures the ways that gender shaped violence against Black women in the 1930s.

Scholars have analyzed interracial police violence and its impact on Black women in other cities. In her study of Detroit during the 1920s and 1930s, Professor Victoria Wolcott argues that Black women's participation in underground economies--including bootlegging and prostitution--made them vulnerable to police brutality. She also links the absence of Black police officers with the escalating rates of violence against Black women. Similarly, Cheryl Hicks's scholarship on Black women in New York City argues that police officers instinctively linked African American women with crime to justify their violence. This historiography helps contextualize some of the violent encounters between white police officers and African American women in Washington, D.C. But, as Sarah Haley argues, scholars are just beginning this work. She contends that police violence against Black women and girls is part of “historical erasure.” This Article chronicles police brutality through the eyes of Black women, like Cornelia Diggs and Dedia Coates, and grapples with some of the reasons for its absence from historical records.

Historians have applied different methodologies to their research on Black women's violent encounters with the police. Since violence involves lingering trauma, a discussion of this experience is always fragmented, partial, and incomplete. As Professor LaKisha Simmons argues, “Silence is absence; it is stories half-told, knowing glances, and narratives ignored.” The history of overt police violence and institutional negligence against Black women brims with these very silences.

This Article draws on newspapers, organizational papers, records of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, and census data to document gendered police violence against Black women from 1920-40. While Black newspapers offer the most comprehensive treatment of police brutality cases, it is rare to find in-depth descriptions of particular cases reporting on police violence, which requires complex investigative journalism. Not only did this pose a financial burden to the cash-strapped Black press but it also demanded that Black reporters question white police officers. These encounters could range from uncomfortable to violent. This challenge posed by a paucity of sources is compounded by the reality that it was dangerous for Black women to report violent encounters, especially those involving rape or sexual assault. Whenever a Black woman in Washington, D.C., experienced violence, she faced a weighty decision about whether to disclose this assault because her morality would be questioned, her respectability scrutinized, and her future potentially compromised. As one unknown African American woman wrote in 1904, “[a] Colored woman, however respectable, is lower than the white prostitute.” The historical record contains twenty-nine cases of brutality. There were many, many more cases that were left unreported.

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In the 1920s, police brutality against Black men and women rose dramatically, making no Black citizen in Washington D.C. safe. Beginning in the late 1920s, Black women became primary victims of a surge in police violence in Washington, D.C. while walking down the street, protesting abuse, or even sleeping in their own homes. Police officers attacked Black women from all walks of life, including those who were model citizens and women who participated in underground economies. Regardless of their social standing, teachers, cooks, clerks, and maids joined forces to express their desire to be treated as citizens. Collectively, they contested police brutality by fighting back, suing abusive officers in Police Court and participating in interviews with the local press.

In the 1930s, a cohort of middle-class activists joined the campaign against police violence by meeting with local officials, marching in the protest parades, circulating petitions, and attending mass meetings and citizens' police trials. Many of the same women who had been prominent in 1920s anti-lynching politics joined the campaign against police violence in the 1930s. Young newcomers also banded together with the veteran organizers. These newcomers assumed prominent positions in the National Negro Congress and the New Negro Alliance to address interracial police violence against women. Within this broad coalition, Black women recruited large numbers of citizens to join the crusade. This mobilization against police brutality evidenced of the growth of their protest politics, which employed militant language, direct action resistance, and an unwavering quest for first-class citizenship in the United States. By the mid-1940s, activists had successfully convinced the police commissioner to change the culture of the police department by hiring more Black officers, adjusting Police Court policies, and most importantly, demonstrating zero tolerance for brutality. Cumulatively, these changes lowered the incidence of police violence in Washington D.C.

The campaigns against police brutality highlighted the importance of addressing other matters of racial justice in the nation's capital. If citizens of Washington, D.C. had been able to vote, it would have been easier to remove Commissioner Ernest Brown, appoint Black judges to Police Court, and select trial boards composed of officers and civilians. The city's culture of segregation made “Blackness” inherently deviant and nurtured police brutality precisely because it sanctioned a racial hierarchy. Many of the Black women who suffered from police violence in the 1930s worked low-wage jobs as maids and cooks and lived in poor neighborhoods with few public resources. Some were elderly and lacked family support. These conditions of poverty made Black women more vulnerable to police brutality. In the 1930s, activists began recognizing that police violence was only one dimension of a larger culture of oppression in Washington, D.C.

In the 1940s, Black female activists called attention to over-policing, which forced the new police commissioner to implement local reforms. Just as Black women in Washington D.C. stood against police brutality and violence, modern citizens can alter the current police violence crisis against Black women. Sadly, police brutality against Black women remains an ever-present issue. Since the murder of Breonna Taylor in 2020, the mobilization of communities across the country has inspired national protests and local reforms, including the Louisville police department banning no-knock warrants. The community mobilization likely contributed to the firing of one of the officers involved in Taylor's death. The firing occurred only weeks after Taylor's story entered the spotlight. Activists can call attention to, and politicize, the over-policing and violence against Black women, while recognizing that gendered violence upholds white supremacy. Communities can only be safe if they are safe for Black women, and the narrative of Black women organizing against gendered police brutality in 1930s offers an illuminating roadmap for the current struggle.

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy is an Associate Professor and Chair of the History Section at Eastern Michigan University; Ph.D. 2012, University of Maryland, College Park; A.B., Mount Holyoke College.