On this dayDec 31, 1907

U.S. Senator Advocates Death Penalty for Black People In Interracial Relationships

The Raleigh News-Observer

On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1907, in his last address as Savannah City Judge, Thomas Norwood, former United States Senator, argued, to a crowd of white Savannah residents, for the execution of Black men involved in consensual interracial relationships with white women. Referring to consensual interracial relationships as the “curse of the 

South,” Judge Norwood alleged that Black people in interracial relationships caused other Black people to commit “deeds of violence” and “created disorder,” and that, consequently, “miscegenation must be repressed by the most vigorous laws.”

In his speech, Judge Norwood depicted Black people as dangerous and subhuman. He based his assertions on encounters with “12,000 Black people,” while admitting that he only interacted with Black citizens when they appeared before him as defendants in court. Judge Norwood described Black people as naturally violent and inherently sexually promiscuous. He advanced degrading false narratives of Black families as prone to intimate partner violence and child abuse. 

Judge Norwood relied on these myths to justify the widely held belief among white citizens that criminalizing, incarcerating, and executing Black men represented the only way to protect white people. He claimed that, “In Africa, [the Black man] knew no government but physical force.” According to Judge Norwood, Black men, who had been trafficked to North America but had now been emancipated, availed themselves of “the white man’s inventions” by securing “razors, pistols, and guns,” and “prowling through the woods to murder white men and assault white women.” 

Senator Norwood viewed Black communities as undeserving of State-funded education. Adamant that Black students lacked the ability to do anything more than imitate the achievements of white people, he called for the return of chattel slavery as an alternative to investing resources in Black children. Evincing his commitment to white supremacy, he proposed execution as punishment for Black men caught in interracial relationships, while advocating life imprisonment for white women similarly charged.

Judge Norwood’s rhetoric urging a death sentence for consensual sexual relations had deadly consequences. During the era of racial terror lynching, myths about Black male sexuality fueled white violence against Black men accused of associating with white women. Between 1877 and 1950, thousands of Black men were lynched in the United States, and nearly 1 in 4 were targeted based on the allegation of raping a white woman. These men were subjected to mob murder without investigation or trial, at a time when the definition of Black-on-white “rape” in the South was incredibly broad and required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman could or would willingly consent to sex with a Black man. This meant that any action by a Black man that could be interpreted as seeking or desiring contact with a white woman might prove deadly. Throughout the lynching era, Black men were lynched for knocking on the door of a white woman’s home, for delivering a letter to a white woman, or for entering a room where white women were sitting. A white woman’s claim of victimization at the hands of a Black man, whether true or not, could and often did lead to brutal and deadly violence. 

During the same era, Black women were routinely targeted for sexual violence and assault by white men who committed rape and other criminal assaults with impunity and no expectation of accountability.

Learn more about how many communities repeatedly elected and supported politicians like Judge Norwood and willingly supported their efforts to maintain racist laws and segregation in America, by reading EJI’s report on Segregation in America.

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