Viola Liuzzo

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[A photograph of Viola Liuzzo as a young woman, retrieved from the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library http://www.lib.alasu.edu/lwlcdigitallib/liuzzo/bio.html]

Viola Liuzzo, born in Pennsylvania in 1925, was a woman whose life was launched into the public eye with her unfortunate and tragic death. Living a relatively quiet life until a few weeks prior to her death, she was a part-time university student, homemaker, and mother to five children. Throughout early 1965 she participated in marches in support of the Civil Rights Movement while living in Detroit, Michigan. However, when she witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pleas for “all Americans [to] bear the burden” in the “struggle… for the soul of the nation,” she left her student- and family-life and traveled to Selma, Alabama. Once in Selma, Liuzzo lent her car and ability to drive to the Movement, along with greeting newcomers in the Movement’s hospitality suite.

On the night of March 25, 1965 Viola Liuzzo was horrifically murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. While driving with Leroy Moton, a nineteen year old Black activist, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, four members of the Ku Klux Klan — one of whom was Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the top FBI informant for the Alabama KKK for five years– fired shots into Liuzzo’s moving vehicle. Liuzzo died instantly, with Moton escaping with his life only by pretending to be dead. They were targeted because Liuzzo, a White woman, and Moton, a young Black man, were breaking Jim Crow social mores that dictated the lives of everyone in the South by riding alone in a car together.

The FBI began an investigation into Liuzzo’s death, but Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. had all charges dropped against him and instead was revealed to be an FBI informant, eventually being given a $10,000 reward by the FBI for “his services.” Within hours, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke publicly about Liuzzo’s tragic murder, her White womanhood playing a key role in the attention that was paid to her death. Despite her death serving as a catapult to change legislation regarding the deaths of Civil Rights activists in the United States, it also brought unwanted attention to Johnson’s Administration and the FBI, with questions circulating as to why Rowe was illegally involved with the KKK and had not stopped the attack against Liuzzo and Moton. In the words of historian Gary May, “[t]o divert attention away from his informant… Hoover [the Director of the FBI at the time] created a more alluring subject for media attention. He and his men worked quickly to transform Viola Liuzzo, mother of five and part-time college student, into a blond seductress who came south not to fight for civil rights but instead to sleep with black men… None of this was true, but Hoover’s files eventually wound up in Klan literature” with the “killers’ attorneys distribut[ing] the hate-filled pamphlets to reporters,” making “Liuzzo’s character a major issue when their clients came to trial” (146).

Liuzzo’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, ending with her untimely death at the hands of White terrorists, is demonstrative of how White womanhood was understood during the 1960s in relation to Black masculinity; to activism and its often deadly consequences; to Southern narratives of sexuality; and to the ways in which White Americans were awoken to the oppression Black Americans faced often only through the violence that televisions projected into living rooms across the United States. It is important for us as historians to tell the stories of women like Liuzzo, while simultaneously being cautious to not replicate the imbalanced attention that was paid to her death versus the deaths of countless Black American activists that often go unnamed in modern histories of struggle and oppression in the United States.

~ M

Bibliography

Federal Investigation Bureau. Accessed March 25, 2016. https://vault.fbi.gov/Viola%20Liuzzo.

May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Stanton, Mary. “Viola Liuzzo.” In Encyclopedia of Alabama. Last updated January 7, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2016. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1377.

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Viola Liuzzo

Anne Damer

Anne_Seymour_Damer_self-portraitPhoto of Anne Seymour Damer’s self portrait. By Michalis Famelis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Each week as I select whom I’m going to feature here on Historical Hotties, I have a kind of inner battle. In the early modern Eurasian context, the majority of the people about whom sources are available belonged to elite strata of their societies; in many cases the (relative) flexibility they enjoyed to do the things that makes them hotties was (in part) a result of social inequalities of various kinds. I was inspired by Monique’s spirit of historical enquiry in her post on Ah Toy last week, so today I’m featuring Anne Seymour Damer, an elite widow, sculptor and accused lesbian (if you’ll pardon the anachronistic term) who lived in 18th and early 19th century England.

Anne was incredibly well-connected. She was born into a noble, whig family, and she counted among her friends David Hume and Horace Walpole. But one of the things that makes Anne fascinating is that, though she has been overshadowed by her male friends (thank you, Great Man history), she was more than a socialite. Anne was an incredible sculptor (she was also an author), and, unlike many elite women who enjoyed fine arts as hobbies, she took up sculpting as a vocation, attaining a high level of training and accessing fields of artistic study typically closed to women, notably anatomy.

Because of her social circle Anne lived in the public eye, and her virtue eventually came under public attack. Less than a decade into her marriage, Anne left her husband (though they did not divorce). She was then widowed in her late twenties when her husband committed suicide. Anne never remarried. On the contrary, because of her noble station she was able to enjoy a degree of independence as a widow (i.e., comparatively free from the control of a father, husband or male relative) that many contemporary women could not achieve. Anne was notoriously independent, and, in addition to her elite male friends, she was also close with several famous women. It was these relationships that attracted ungenerous attention, even when her husband was living: several verse libels were published in the press that questioned Anne’s sexuality, suggesting that she had seduced her female friends. Despite the attacks on her character, once widowed Anne did not take refuge in a second marriage. She continued to use her social position and widowed state to pursue her own goals and desires.

Historical figures like Anne raise so many questions about how to do history in a just way. On the one hand, she was absolutely pushing boundaries of what was considered acceptable for women in her time and place. On the other, she was able to do so because of her elite social station. Undoubtedly, her working-class contemporaries had far less social, political and financial leeway (to say nothing of how the craft work of poor women is rarely regarded as “art” in its own right). Anne has been eclipsed as a historical figure by her male contemporaries. When studying Anne and women like her, the question becomes important: whose lives do theirs obscure?

~S

Damer, Anne Seymour (1749–1828),” Alison Yarrington in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/7084 (accessed March 18, 2016).

Anne Damer

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy

Katherine Rem

I know very little about this week’s historical figure, but what I do know compels me to share! As a student of religious reform, I’m often reminded that the grand narrative of The Reformation is still very powerful. One aspect of this narrative is that Protestantism liberated women from the repressive confines of Catholicism by doing away with nunneries (spoiler alert: Protestant majority and Catholic majority societies alike continue(d) repressing women). Historians in recent decades have challenged this notion, but it remains a prevalent idea that effectively assigns progressiveness to one way of believing and backwardness to another. A fruitful way of complicating this narrative (at least in the academy) has been to consider the words and actions of Catholic nuns in Protestant locales. One such woman was Katherine Rem, an early 16th century nun in Augsburg’s Katherine convent.

A devout Catholic nun from one of the quintessential Lutheran cities, Katherine found herself within a socio-religious climate that was increasingly hostile to Catholicism and its representatives. In 1523, Katherine wrote a letter to her brother that showcases her own perspective. In her letter, Katherine affirmed that, although inhabitants of the town were increasingly adopting Lutheranism, she would not be joining them. She chastised the recipient, her own brother, both for converting to Lutheranism himself, and for encouraging Katherine and her niece (his daughter, one of Katherine’s fellow nuns) to follow suit (which would have meant breaking their vows). Katherine declined to follow the path down which her male kinsman was leading her. The letter is rich in language and metaphor straight from Scripture—Katherine knew her Bible and her own mind, and she was not going to convert. She was certainly not going to abandon her vocation; rather, she defended it, going as far as to denounce her brother’s conversion as wicked folly.

Aside from her correspondence, I am not aware of other sources that offer more insight into Katherine’s life. Nonetheless, it appears that Katherine was a woman with the courage of her convictions. She neither bent to shifting socio-religious mores in her locale, nor obediently complied with the wishes of her close male relative. Her devotion to her vocation reminds us that studying historical change requires that we be suspicious of truths presumed to be self-evident.

~S

 

Merry Wiesner Hanks and Monica Chojnacka. Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: Sources in European Social History, 1400-1750 (London: Routledge, 2014), 239-243.

 

Katherine Rem