The Maneater

Historian Martha Jones speaks on past and present violence against black women

Jones’ speech, the second in “The African American Experience in Missouri” lecture series, discussed the importance of sharing African-American women’s stories in order to inspire action against violence.

Martha Jones, historian and professor at the University of Michigan, spoke Wednesday night in Jesse Hall on the importance of telling stories of violence against black women past and present in order to inspire change.

Jones recounted the story of Celia, an African-American slave purchased in 1850 in Fulton, Missouri, at the age of fourteen who was subject to years of sexual abuse by her owner, Robert Newsom.

“Our 21st century questions are ones about how the state disciplines, punishes and controls black women through agents of violence,” Jones said. “In this sense, Celia’s case reminds us that this state violence is an old problem; one with origins in the antebellum United States and the institution of slavery.”

Celia had two of Newsom’s children and was pregnant with a third child, most likely his, when she said she felt unwell and asked two of Newsom’s daughters to speak with their father about giving her space.

His daughters dismissed Celia’s plea, and that night, when Newsom entered her cabin, Celia killed him by striking him in the head with a stick and burning his remains to hide the evidence. After confessing, 19-year-old Celia was charged with murder and sentenced to hanging in the case State of Missouri v. Celia, A Slave.

“The elements of Celia’s case sound familiar,” Jones said. “Perhaps, eerily so. They include racism, the state, sexual assault and a court system unprepared, or perhaps unable, to manufacture justice for a woman like Celia.”

Jones also spoke about #SayHerName, a social media movement that shares stories of violence against black women, specifically in regard to law enforcement in order to bring attention to the issue and invoke change.

“(#SayHerName) is an intervention in the movement that we call Black Lives Matter,” Jones said. “It is one that reminds us, as citizens, as activists, as commentators, as scholars, that violence against women, including sexual violence, demands our attention and our action.”

Jones said #SayHerName is not simply a twenty-first century slogan, but is a call to action to make use of history to transform the present.

“For a historian, one who constructs stories and explanations of the past, #SayHerName is a challenge,” Jones said. “I have said Celia’s name countless times. Still, it demands that I not merely say her name, Celia, it demands that I make that invocation matter. It demands that we regard our work as more than antiquarian tellings of the foreign place that we call the past.”

Jones’ speech was preceded by a reception and followed by her signing copies of her 2007 book “All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African-American Public Culture, 1830- 1900.”

“The issues she discussed are important because much of what she talked about is still going on today,” freshman Charlie Durham said. “Those issues have a lasting impact. Women and people of color are treated differently in the court system today, and there is tons of evidence to prove it. Those differences are not as drastic as in the past, but it’s still reminiscent of old problems that many people think America has solved, but we clearly have not.”

Jones’ speech was the second in MU’s new “The African American Experience in Missouri” lecture series.

“(The speakers’) presentations on everything from slavery and the meaning of race to urban decline and the rise of jazz culture are an essential step in continuing the dialogue that began this fall,” assistant history professor Keona Ervin said in a Jan. 6 statement.

On Feb. 3, Diane Mutti Burke, associate history professor at UM-Kansas City, gave the series’ inaugural lecture “Contesting Slavery: Enslaved Missourians’ Enduring Struggle for Self-Determination,” where she spoke on the lives and households of former mid-Missouri African-American slaves.

In regard to Mutti’s speech, Vice Provost of Institutional Research and Quality Improvement Mardy Eimers said, “it was very informative. I never fully understood the extent of slavery in Missouri. I grew up in an Iowa town that had very little diversity. So I’m trying to learn more about Missouri’s past — the good and the bad — so I can become a more effective campus leader, a better citizen both in and out of the university.”

Eimers attended both Mutti and Jones’ speeches. He said he thought slavery had mainly taken place in southeast Missouri, but learned that it had also taken place near the Missouri River extending to the Kansas City area such as in Columbia and in Callaway County.

While the remaining list of speakers is yet to be finalized, the series will continue with approximately three to four speakers over the span of three semesters. The State Historical Society of Missouri’s Center for Missouri Studies and MU’s Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity partnered to develop the lecture series, which will continue to cover the progression of black lives in Missouri from the beginnings of its statehood to present day.

The next event will be April 21 with Harvard professor Walter Johnson’s speech entitled, “No Rights Which the White Man Was Bound to Respect” which will detail the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case.

“I think you need to know your past to understand the present and think of the future,” Eimers said. “It gives the framework for how current culture might have come about.”

“The richness that diversity brings to a community can only be truly appreciated when you understand its heritage,” said Chuck Henson, interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity, in a statement. “We believe this look into the past is essential as we work together to write the next chapter of our shared history.”

Edited by Taylor Blatchford | tblatchford@themaneater.com

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