This article is a part of the Black Monuments Project, which imagines a world that celebrates Black heroes in 54 U.S. states and territories.
Recy Taylor was 24 years old when a group of white men kidnapped and raped her.
It was Sept. 3, 1944, a Sunday like most: church during the day, a stroll back home afterward to her house in Abbeville, Alabama. Taylor was walking with her friend Fannie Daniel and Daniel’s teenage son, West, around midnight when the white men pulled up in a car, armed with guns and knives.
Historian Danielle McGuire’s 2010 book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power detailed the encounter.
“We’re looking for this girl, right there,” U.S. Army Private Herbert Lovett, the oldest of the men, said, referring to Taylor. Lovett accused Taylor of assaulting a white boy in nearby Clopton. He claimed to be detaining her on behalf of the local sheriff.
“If she’s not the one, we’ll bring her right back,” Lovett assured the Daniels.
Taylor tried to run. Lovett aimed his gun at her and threatened to kill her, McGuire’s book said. He and the other white men dragged her into the car, drove her to a nearby patch of woods and ordered her to remove her clothes. Lovett spread a hunting coat on the ground and told Taylor to lie down on top of it. Then, one after the other, he and five of the other men raped her.
When they were finished, the white men made Taylor get dressed again, then blindfolded her and dropped her off by the side of the road. Once the sound of the car’s engine had faded into the night, Taylor removed the blindfold and started walking home again.
More than a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott brought the civil rights movement to mainstream prominence, in the mid-1950s, Taylor’s case galvanized black organizers into one of the largest coordinated black-led social justice movements the nation had seen up to that point.
Daniel, Taylor’s friend, reported the abduction almost immediately, but police declined to arrest any of the men later determined to be involved. The case eventually went to trial anyway. Rosa Parks herself organized Taylor’s legal team. A coalition of NAACP organizers, labor groups, women’s rights activists, reporters and youth-led civil rights groups demanded justice and made Taylor’s story national news, printing it up in newspapers from Alabama to Pittsburgh to Harlem, New York City.
In the end, none of Taylor’s rapists were even indicted, let alone convicted. But the groundwork laid by her case helped establish the infrastructure for what would become the banner American human rights movement of the 20th century. Taylor died on Dec. 28; she was 97.
We see echoes of Taylor’s case in modern day instances of justice deferred when black people are brutalized, assaulted or killed: Mike Brown, Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd, to name a few. The debt that the civil rights movement and its later iterations owe to Taylor is incalculable. This is why the Black Monuments Project honors her today.