‘‘she was born in this prison’’:
black female crime, past and present
A56 colored female died at 4 pm ‘‘she was Born in this prison’’ was 27 years
of age the body was taken by her friends.
—Michael Cassidy, Eastern State Penitentiary, Warden’s Journals, May 27, 1882
the roots of the colored amazon sink deep into the social and cul-
tural foundation of America and its legal
Warden Cassidy’s nota-
tion about the black female prisoner born at Eastern aptly summarized the
origins of black female criminality and, ultimately, broader notions of black
womanhood. Public perceptions of both found their origins in the justice sys-
tem—metaphorically appropriate, a prison. Race and gender bias helped jus-
tify unequal treatment beginning with enslavement and the use of separate
These biases later metamorphosed to validate the social exclu-
sion of African-American women after abolition. In the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, the caricature fully emerged and promoted exag-
gerated notions of black female criminality. It also projected a representation
of black femininity fundamentally incongruous with prevailing definitions of
Significant social transformation in the post-Reconstruction era further
complicated matters. Black women perhaps more than ever before expected to
enjoy the rights of citizenship as well as the benefits that domesticity afforded.
The realities of enduring social and economic exclusion touched off a profound
sense of disappointment, frustration, and anger. Adding to their disillusion-
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