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Unknown Photographer



Crowd outside the courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida awaiting the jury's verdict about four white youths on trial for raping a black coed, June 14, 1959
Vintage wire photograph on paper
6 5/8 x 9 5/16 in. (16.83 x 23.65 cm)

Creation Place: North America
Technique: Photography
Credit Line: Restricted gift of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg in honor of Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Accession Number: P2021.13.365

Commentary
Await Decision of Rape Jury: part of a crowd outside the courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida awaiting the jury's verdict about four white youths on trial for raping a black coed. The youths were convicted with a recommendation for mercy, which spares them from electric chair. Court granted the routine 15 days for the defendants to file a motion for a new trial. Sentences deferred until later date, Tallahassee, Florida.

Betty Jean Owens (b. 1940) sat in a car on May 2, 1959 with two black men and one other black female. All were students at Florida A&M University. Four white men---William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, David Beagles, and Patrick Scarborough---approached a car at Jake Gaither Park. Armed with switchblades and shotguns, the men ordered all of the students out of the car. The men were forced to kneel and then made to drive away. The two black women were left with the four white men. One of the women, Edna Richardson, broke free of the men and ran into a nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone. Driving her to the edge of town, the men subsequently raped her seven times. During this time, the three other students who had been with Owens went to the police station to report the evening’s events. The officer that night, nineteen-year-old Joe Cook Jr., surprisingly called for back-up and searched for Owens. A chase with the assailant’s car ensued and the men were eventually pulled over. Owens was bound and gagged on the backseat floor. Police arrested the four white men and took them to jail. They joked and laughed along the way, sure that nobody would care what they had done. All men confessed, in writing, to having abducted Betty at gunpoint and raping her.

When students at A&M heard what happened, groups began to plan protests to demand justice for Owens. As a result of these protests, wide media coverage, and a threat to boycott classes, Judge W. Walker called a grand jury into special session four days after the attack, on May 6, 1959. More than 200 black spectators entered the courtroom that day to watch the trail. All four men pleaded innocent, making a jury trial mandatory. This became the first time in Florida that white defendants, charged with raping a black woman, were sent to jail to await their trail. On June 12, 1959, Betty Jean Owens told the jury, and four-hundred witnesses, what happened that evening. The defense tried to present the men as respectable and characterized Owens as a whore that wanted sex. The jury found the men guilty but asked for a recommendation for mercy. Mercy ensured that the four men would not face the electric chair. They were, however, sentenced to life in prison. Five years later, David Beagles was paroled. Four years after his release, he tracked down a black woman he thought was Betty Jean Owens. He murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave. However, he murdered a woman named Betty Jean Robinson Houston, a different lady. The ordeal faced by Betty Jean Owens presented another key turning point in the rights of black women to reclaim their bodies. It demonstrated progress, given that white men were now accountable for their actions against black women. However, there was still progress to be made, as it appeared only a black man would receive the death penalty for committing rape. Overall though, local issues and a politically-mobilized black middle class, combined with media attention, created pressure for change.

Marks
On recto: typewritten title and date.
On verso: Associated Press stamp and date stamp.

Materials
Wire photographs were originally transmitted over phonelines, then later, by satellite. They were first used in the early 1920s. Associated Press became a leader with this. After pigment touch-ups, etc., the print is put into a drum (like a drum scanner). The image gets converted into audio tones that are transmitted. The tones are received and beamed onto photo-sensitive paper. Wire photographs are copies without originals---they are hybrid, transmitted objects. (Britt Salvesen, Curator and Department Head, Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 30-31, 2022)

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Dimensions
  • Image Dimensions: 6 5/8 x 9 5/16 in. (16.83 x 23.65 cm) Measured by Hudson, Karen
  • Sheet Dimensions: 8 1/8 x 10 in. (20.64 x 25.4 cm) Measured by Hudson, Karen


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