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Recy Taylor

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 1/8/2021

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights


“I can’t help but tell the truth...”

Wikipedia Fair Use

By age 17, Recy Corbitt was caring for her six siblings after the death of their mother. Recy had been born Dec. 31, 1919 to a share-cropping family in rural Henry County, Alabama, and continued to work that farmland well into her adulthood. She married Willie Guy Taylor in 1944 and the two had a daughter named Joyce Lee. 

This same year, 1944, was when Recy’s life was pulled roughly from the path she’d planned. On Sept. 3, 24-year-old Recy walked home from Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama, with a friend, 61-year-old Fannie Daniel, and her teenage son West Daniel. A green Chevrolet circled them several times.

Abbeville was firmly in the segregated Jim Crow South. The Alabama Klu Klux Klan routinely terrorized the Black communities with threats, physical violence, and destruction of property. 

“I saw the car pull up behind me,” Recy later said. “Some white boys.” Inside the car were six young men, all armed with knives and guns. They ordered Recy and her companions into the car, but they refused. The men then grabbed Recy and pulled her in. “I mean, they ain’t said nothing about what they were going to do to me.”

“They put me in the car then went and blindfold me,” Recy recalled. The men drove to a pine grove where all six of them raped her. “I was begging them to leave me alone, ‘don’t shoot me, I got to go home to see about my baby.’ They wouldn’t let me go.” After the assault, the men dumped Recy on the side of the highway.

When Recy had been abducted, Fannie Daniel immediately rushed to the authorities, but was unable to find the sheriff. Instead, she notified a former chief of police and Recy’s father, Benny Corbitt. The two men searched throughout the night and eventually located Recy around 3 a.m. injured and staggering along the highway.

Recy reported the crime to the county sheriff, George H. Gamble. She hadn’t recognized any of the men, but she—and the Daniels—had one crucial clue: the green Chevrolet. This distinctive car belonged to one person and the authorities knew who it was. Hugo Wilson, the car’s owner, was brought to the county jail with his father. There, he admitted to the crime and gave the names of the five other men in the car. They had all “had intercourse with her,” he said, but they paid her for it, so the kidnapping and violence could not, by his estimation, be considered rape.

Sherrif Gamble sent Hugo Wilson home with a $250 fine. None of the other men were ever brought in or questioned. 

Despite witnesses to the kidnapping, testimony from the survivor, and a confession from a perpetrator, no charges were filed. Instead, Recy was terrorized for daring to report the crime. She, along with her husband and her child, moved into her father’s home after their own was set on fire by white vigilantes. Benny Corbitt sat in a tree in the front yard during the nights, armed with a shotgun to protect his family, going to sleep only when the sun rose. 

This obvious injustice outraged the Black community of Abbeville and it was reported to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP sent one of their most experienced sexual assault investigators and activists, Rosa Parks, to Abbeville. While Rosa met with Recy, the deputy sheriff drove by the Corbitt sharecropper cabin repeatedly until he finally burst in. He demanded that Rosa leave. “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he said. “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”

Rosa left, returning to Montgomery to launch the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Among its members were notable figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary Church Terrell. This group created informational fliers that spread far in the South and pursued news coverage documenting the case. Word reached far, with reports in the Pittsburgh Courier and New York Daily News. An article in the Chicago Defender reported on the so-called legal maneuvers so far: The rapists’ lawyer offered Willie Guy Taylor $600 for his wife’s silence. “The six defendants were willing to pay $100 each,” the article said, “‘if Recy Taylor would forget.’”

In her 2017 obituary, Sewell Chan, reporter for The New York Times, wrote, “It was the final year of World War II, and some blacks likened their struggle for equal rights to the fight against fascism. Eugene Gordon, a black writer for The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper in New York, interviewed Mrs. Taylor and told his readers, ‘The raping of Mrs. Recy Taylor was a fascist-like brutal violation of her personal rights as a woman and as a citizen of democracy.’”

The public scrutiny motivated Henry County to convene a grand jury in early October of 1944. It was the theater of justice with none of the substance. As the perpetrators had not been arrested nor questioned, there were no statements and no suspect line-up. The only witnesses were Recy herself and the Daniels, all Black and unlikely to be valued by the all-white, all-male jury. The grand jury refused to indict the men, despite Hugo Wilson’s confession.

Through it all, Recy Taylor was firm in her pursuit of justice. “I can’t help but tell the truth about what they done to me.”

The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor (which itself was investigated by the FBI under accusations by the House Un-American Activities Committee that it was a Communist front) urged people to write letters to Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks, demanding he reconvene the Henry County Grand Jury. Hundreds of outraged letters, postcards, and petitions arrived, and Governor Sparks responded by ordering the crime re-investigated.

This second investigation revealed that nearly all of the men had admitted to having sex with Recy, and insisted they paid her. One, however, confirmed Recy’s version. Willie Jo Culpepper said, “She was crying and asking us to let her go home to her husband and baby.” Despite this, in February of 1945, the second grand jury—again, all-male and all-white—also refused to indict. 

Public opinion shifted with this second grand jury as well. Many news outlets reported that Recy Taylor was a sex worker, which led to less sympathy in their coverage of her assault.

The legal avenues were exhausted. The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor disbanded. The threats and violence continued, so Recy Taylor and her family moved to Montgomery for a few months, with the help of Rosa Parks and the NAACP, then relocated more permanently to Florida. There, Recy made a living picking oranges. She and Willie Guy separated some years later. He died in the early 1960s and daughter Joyce Lee died in a car accident in 1967.

Though justice eluded Recy Taylor, her determined efforts were not wholly in vain. In Danielle L. McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History for the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, she writes, "The Recy Taylor case brought the building blocks of the Montgomery bus boycott together a decade earlier.” The communication avenues forged by the Committee only strengthened.

And it was this 2011 publication by Danielle L. McGuire that brought about this formal apology from the Alabama Legislature in April of that year:

Be it resolved by the legislature of Alabama, both Houses thereof concurring, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

Recy received additional apologies in person from the state representative, the Abbeville mayor, and a Henry County judge on Mother’s Day in 2011 during a visit to Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville. “That was a good day to present it to me,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.” She also received an invitation to the White House. A documentary, “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” was released in 2017. 

Recy died in her sleep just three days before her 98th birthday on Dec. 28, 2017, in a nursing home in Abbeville. She was buried at New Mount Zion Freewill Baptist Church, next to her daughter. 

In the decades since the justice system failed Recy Taylor, her example has only gained more significance. “They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone,” said Oprah Winfrey during a Golden Globes speech in 2018, just days after Recy’s death. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared speak their truth to the power of those men... And I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth...goes marching on.”

See her obituary on The New York Times