The criminalization of Black humanity in America’s Jim Crow south was based on some of the most flippant and unbelievable arguments of jurisprudence, so much so that it would leave most people today gape-mouthed.
In the books in North Carolina for instance, was the transgression of looking at people wrongly – with the committal of offense suggested by the person looked at. It was known as “reckless eyeballing” and in the the days of slavery, it was used in reference to situations where proud enslaved Black people would look free white men and women in the eye. When segregation came, the term was identified mainly with the offense white women took to being looked at by Black men.
Many are already familiar with the potentially deadly consequences for Black men who found themselves in close proximity or in romantic relationships with white women in the south. But what informed the violent repercussions?
In “A Look at the ‘love’ affairs between enslaved men and rich white women” published on Face2Face Africa, the following observation was made:
In contrast to black women who were considered whores is the idea of white women, especially in the Antebellum South, who were seen as pure and virtuous…Southern women, especially of the plantation class, were the precious jewels of Southern culture. In the thought of the times, they were to be taken care of by their men…Their supposed purity was linked to their sexuality and virtue to their ability to maintain a home according to traditional Southern Christian values.
The lengths to which the southern white patriarchy went to defend the supposed innocence of white femininity can be seen in how many Black men paid the costs with their lives, livelihoods and liberty. When Matt Ingram, a Black tenant farmer in Yanceyville, North Carolina found himself looking in the direction of Willa Jean Boswell, the 17-year-old white woman in the neighborhood in 1951, it did not go very well for Ingram.
In a lengthy case that took two years and a half, Ingram would be cost emotional and financial distress, as well as being alienated from his family. Boswell accused Ingram of making her feel uncomfortable as if he had intentions to force himself on her. This is in spite of the fact she was 75 feet away from Ingram.
When police arrested Ingram and the news broke, many in Yanceyville wanted the Black man locked away. This was even though they understood the merits of the case – no crime had been committed other than a white teenager’s impression that she was being leered at. It made no difference.
But locking Ingram away may have even been a merciful way to deal with him. There had been Jesse Washington, George Armwood and of course, Emmett Till, who had all been lynched for similar ridiculousness.
Ingram was first charged with an intention to rape but that was later reduced to assault. The judge declared that Ingram was guilty if he issued “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner, that is, in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner…he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger”.
All this while, what prosecutors held on to was Boswell’s feelings. Her feeling of fear having seen she was being looked at by a Black man. And it did suffice because the all-white jury convicted Ingram on assault, one would think, from sight. Not even Ingram’s white lawyer could save him.
The conviction made national news and the NAACP came to town. But for two years, Ingram was in prison, awaiting retrials.
In the end, the Superior Court granted Ingram his freedom, pointing out that: “it cannot be said that a pedestrian may be assaulted by a look, however frightening, from a person riding in an automobile some distance away. He may have looked with lustful eyes but there was the absence of any overt act.”