“The Black female subject was defined by the unbearable flexibility of nonbeing”—Sarah Haley
“Violence is a language that can only be communicated by passing it on.”—Nell Bernstein
Researching the experiences of Black women inmates from Depression-era Los Angeles has been a daunting exercise. Leaving behind so few sources other than their criminal records, telling the stories of these women is at once a project of recovery and a project of reinterpretation. The researcher must both excavate clues of these women’s lives and dismantle the distorted institutional and popular narratives that have been written about them in newspapers and correctional files. This essay begins with two quotes that capture, in their brevity, significant truths rendered from studying black women and their entanglement with the criminal justice apparatus—that they are largely invisible to mainstream society until they are charged with a crime, and that their lives are rife with constant and myriad forms of violence. The stories of black women found here on the Black Prisoners Project are not complete stories, but the hope is to provide a broad sketch for understanding the lives of working-class Black women, and the trends that contour their encounters with law enforcement, courts, and incarceration. The hope is that these women become visible and multidimensional.
Although each woman has a unique story, taken together, their criminal records illuminate some general trends and similarities. For example, the majority of the women in our sample are not Los Angeles natives, but southern transplants. As part of a larger exodus of Black migrants leaving the South, some of the women in this study journeyed extensively throughout the United States looking for work before arriving in Los Angeles. In some cases, women went as far as Vancouver, British Columbia in the hopes of finding viable employment. As transient people constantly on the move, the details of migration patterns are scarce. If, however, some women became targets of local law enforcement, they accumulated criminal histories by the time they reached Los Angeles. In general, their charges were for minor offenses such as vagrancy, drunkenness, or petty theft, which were occasionally dismissed but remained on their records. These lists of prior charges adversely impacted black women and their likelihood of receiving sympathy in court. Judges and juries interpreted records of minor offenses as proof of black women’s criminality and delinquency. Ultimately, these lists of prior charges provide important information regarding migration patterns and trajectories, and collectively suggest that black women migrants faced frequent police surveillance and harassment wherever they travelled.
While Los Angeles seemed to hold the promise of racial equality and social mobility, many working class black migrants found similar problems of police harassment and white supremacy in Southern California. Due to racially restrictive housing practices, African Americans found housing in the Central Avenue district. Central Avenue flourished. As the heart of Black Los Angeles, it was a thriving hub home to several black businesses and the liveliest nightlife in the city. Central Avenue’s popular jazz joints and nightclubs attracted more than just white thrill-seeking Angelenos interested in “slumming”, the district also caught the scrutinizing attention of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In particular, the LAPD’s vice squads hovered over Central Avenue seeking to bust bootlegging, speakeasies, drug rings, prostitution, and enforce the city’s de facto segregation norms. As historian Gerald Woods has written, the period between 1924 and 1938 marks a nadir in LAPD history, in which the force demonstrated a blatant disregard for civil rights in their brutality towards vagrants, radicals, and people of color, earning them the nickname “the Cossacks”. In response to progressive demands to clean up city vice and general negative public opinion towards the police, Chief August Vollmer began an assault on commercial vice, and part of this agenda targeted prostitution. As a result, Black women especially around the Central Avenue district were immediately pegged and suspected of prostitution.
Consequently, a major trend that shaped Black women’s experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system are allegations of prostitution. Whether or not some actually worked as prostitutes, Black women constantly faced suspicion and association with sex work. This stigma is rooted in the history of sexual violence and exploitation of female slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the construction of black women as sexually immoral, lascivious, and deceitful. Moreover, cultural representations of Black women as harlots and streetwalkers were pervasive in newspapers and scandal rags to the extent that the connection between Black female bodies and sex work was firmly ingrained in the minds of law enforcement, judges, and ordinary citizens. No example illustrates the deep connection between criminality and Black women’s sexuality like the “badger, a popular construction of the archetypal criminal Black woman. In a typical badger crime, a black woman pretends to be a prostitute in order to steal money from white men. In many criminal cases, complaining white male victims or their legal counsel imply that the accused Black women are badgers that force themselves on to innocent and respectable white men. Accusations of this nature were common in theft and prostitution cases against Black women because they served strategic purposes for the prosecution. It drew on the long history of linking Black women with sexual depravity and promiscuity, and in doing so, leveraged the innocence of white men.
Being caught in the company of Black women in general, and prostitutes in particular, was a tremendous source of shame that white men tried as hard as possible to conceal. In fact, in one particular case, prosecution declined to pursue felony charges “due to the embarrassment of a white man accompanying a Negro woman into an alley.” Denying any intention or desire to visit black prostitutes also had the potential to ruin the case for complaining victims because some judges believed that white men deserved the crime they suffered for even soliciting Black women for sex in the first place.
In addition to prostitution, another significant theme that emerges in the cases of Black women inmates is the violence that permeates their lives. Close readings of sentencing documents will reveal that inasmuch as Black women are perpetrators of violence, they are victims of violence as well. In instances where charges include assault or murder, Black women maintain their innocence and dignity by claiming they acted in self-defense, and that the men in question attacked them first. As a pattern, these self-defense refrains reveal that black women lived with a chronic threat and fear of violence. In at least two of the cases showcased in the Black Prisoners Project, black women explain to white judges and juries that they frequently carried knives or pistols on their persons because the risks of attack were so severe and pervasive. Being a Black woman in Los Angeles was simply not safe.
Moreover, Black women inmate files also contain stories that suggest abusive relationships. For instance, Barbara Bramlette, an inmate profiled on in this project, killed her ex-boyfriend after the police refused to help protect her from him. He had been incessantly harassing her and pressuring her to sell her body for sex, which she repeatedly refused. Reaching the end of her rope, Bramlette raised her pistol and shot her former boyfriend, effectively ending the cycle of abuse she couldn’t escape. Violence was her way out. As scholar Kali Gross argues, researchers can use crime as texts to reveal the muted voices and stories of Black women convicts: “Those who are victimized by violence often resort to it in an effort to be powerful…Violence became an instrument of power and vengeance, often supplanting the protection and justice that continued to remain elusive.” In other words, crime and violence were the only viable mechanisms black women had at their disposal to express their agency, resist abuse and exploitation, and make their lives visible to society writ large.
Thus, when reading through these correctional files of Black women inmates we must be attentive and sensitive to the layers of violence and erasure that shape their experiences. The only documents that survive to tell the stories of these women are their prison and court records, and the occasional newspaper report of their crimes. Were it not for these sources, their lives and experiences would remain invisible in the historical record. In order to avoid perpetuating one-dimensional interpretations of Black women prisoners, we cannot take these narratives about Black women’s criminality at face value. But if we listen closely, the silences, too, tell stories.
 Kali Gross Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2006) 89.