The movement to end sexual violence in the U.S. has largely been driven by Black women and survivors. This Black History Month, we recognize Black survivors’ critical role in the anti-violence movement and the fight for dignity and justice for all survivors.

Historically, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence have been used to control people, especially marginalized communities. During the time of legalized chattel slavery in the United States, rape and sexual violence against enslaved people were common and legal.  

After slavery was abolished during the Reconstruction period, violence against Black communities and formerly enslaved people was rampant, including the use of sexual violence. 

Over a two-day period in 1866, a violent mob of men rampaged through a Black community in Memphis, sexually assaulting women, burning schools and homes, and murdering 46 Black Americans. After the rampage ended, there was a congressional investigation, and five Black women who survived this violence gave the first known testimonies to Congress on sexual assault. 

Despite these women’s bravery, no one was ever charged with the violence and assault the riots brought. 

As Black History Month comes to an end, we honor these five survivors who bravely spoke up despite the immense pressure to stay silent. They laid the framework for future survivors to come forward, and their courage needs to be remembered.