Uniting to Slay the White Beast: Rape Rhetoric and the Prosecution of Charles Guerand

Friday, January 8, 2010: 10:10 AM
Santa Rosa Room (Marriott)
Michele L. Grigsby Coffey , University of South Carolina
On February 10, 1930, Hattie McCray, a fourteen-year-old, African American girl, was working as a dishwasher in New Orleans.  Charles Guerand, a twenty-seven-year-old, white police patrolman, arrived at the restaurant inebriated and attempted to coerce McCray’s consent to a sexual relationship.  When McCray refused, Guerand shot the girl in the back of the head.   Guerand’s subsequent trial for first-degree murder garnered tremendous attention in the city’s white and black newspapers, much of which inverted the common white image of a black beast attacking a virginal, white lady.  Additionally, within the African American community, a coalition was formed, demanding justice for McCray and protection for black women from the white beast(s) who sexually preyed upon them.  Ultimately, the all-white jury convicted Guerand, a verdict carrying an automatic death sentence, the first meted out to a white defendant in Louisiana for killing an African American. 

This paper explores the public response to the trial of Charles Guerand with particular attention given to the inversion of the interracial rape trope that cast Guerand as a white beast.  Although both the white and black press employed this image to call for justice and applaud the verdict, their motivations differed considerably.  This paper examines the degree to which the white, middle-class newspaper editors condemned Guerand’s open desire for McCray as a public violation of the interracial sexual mores of the city, which deemed interracial relationships based in equality as a threat to white respectability.  This paper also assesses the appeal of the gendered rhetoric of the protection of black womanhood for the professional men and women as well as the domestic laborers who contributed to the McCray fund, arguing that for these individuals, the prosecution represented an opportunity for African Americans to demand justice for McCray as well as respect for themselves and their communities.

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