Women in New Orleans History: Honoring the life of Hattie McCray

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On the afternoon of February 10, 1930, Hattie McCray, a fourteen-year-old African American girl, was killed by twenty-seven-year-old white off-duty police officer Charles Guerand. The incident happened only three blocks away from Hattie’s home in uptown New Orleans at Matt’s Place, a local oyster restaurant owned by Matt Piacun. Hattie missed two weeks of school to work as a dishwasher to help support her family. Charles Guerand arrived at the restaurant drunk, making unwanted continued sexual advances towards Hattie, and became enraged by her refusals. According to the restaurant owner, Matt Piacun, Hattie ran into the kitchen in fear of her safety. Guerand ran behind her; after determining that the owner’s wife, Bessie Piacun, was not in the building, he yelled, “I am going back there and kill that God Damned Nigger wench.” While in the kitchen, the source stated, “an argument concerning the girls’ chastity ensued.” A moment later, Matt Piacun heard two shots. “I ran to the kitchen,” he told police investigators, “and seen the girl that washes dishes for me lying on the floor in a pool of blood and Officer Guerand standing there with a gun in his hand.“(1) Guerand shot Hattie in the back of the head, killing her.

Guerand would state that he shot Hattie because she had a knife… [T]he girl reached for a knife and threatened to kill him.” (59) Although the papers referred to the ­“indecent” overtures made by Guerand, they always figured the killing as one of self-defense rather than one of sexual desire and control. There was little evidence that McCray even had a knife at the time of her murder except for Guerand’s own statement to defending her honor. (95) At the crime scene, the investigators found no weapon beside her body. (60)

Guerand was quickly arrested, and in April 1930, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by an all-white male jury. Guerand avoided execution but, his conviction and incarceration would make New Orleans history the first time a white man was given such a verdict for killing a black woman.  

The guilty verdict was reported as a triumph in both the black and white papers. Although the newspapers had varying interpretations of the crime, certain things were clear: this was a sexualized murder, and Charles Guerand killed Hattie McCray because he was denied access to her body.

Hattie became a symbol of virginal girlhood and black womanhood in need of protection from perverted white men. In honor of her fight to protect her innocence, The Louisiana Weekly published the poem “Defending Her Honor,” written by Ivy Lenoir. At the time of Hattie’s death, Ivy Lenoir was a thirty-six-year-old mother from a highly respected family and graduate of Xavier University. (86)

“Defending Her Honor,”

She fell, bullet wounded

Thank God, not in Shame!

She fell warding off

A beastly attack,

A sterling young woman,

Even though she was black.

Defending her honor,

Protecting her name,

She fought for her virtue,

And died for the same.

In defending Hattie’s Honor it had had to be proven that she was not a clear result of her murder as if wasn’t enough for a teenage girl to plead with a twenty-seven year old manic police officer to not take her virginity. The court had to prove Hattie’s purity and indeed she was a virgin. But what if she wasn’t? Would that mean she did not have the right to say NO and resisted being raped?

Furthermore, the white press’s troubling narrative of the crime disavowed Hattie McCray’s pain. As one feminist scholar explains, “Pain is what divided white childhood from black childhood in U.S. popular ­culture.” (63) The denial of Hattie’s pain by the white press was a disowning of a psychic realm of interiority. (64) She was not granted a self that could be terrified, hurt, or injured, so even as papers like the New Orleans Times reported on the event, they denied McCray full personhood. They marked her as nothing but a body, absent of any interior emotions. ­Further, by suggesting that she initiated the violence, the press ignored the more likely scenario that she felt fear. Instead, she was cast as a ­rebellious, possibly even dangerous working girl.

Simmons, LaKisha Michelle. Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. The University of North Carolina, 2015.

In life and death, Hattie sacrificed for the sake of others. She left school to help financially support her family. Hattie testified in death thus shining light on the inner workings of gendered Jim Crow violence, race, and justice. In Hattie’s time black girls in New Orleans could be punished for accusing white men of rape. It pains me to know that these monsters would murder women because they would not consent to their sexual advances.

Hattie McCray’s life deserves to be honored, and she must be remembered.

Women such as Hattie McCray are mere examples of the police violence Black women faced years before the “SayHerName” campaign began in 2015.

Louisiana Weekly Newspaper Article, 1930

Description:  The Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans’s black newspaper headline from February 22, 1930 headlining the murder of a 14 year-old African American girl, Hattie McCray.

Description: The Louisiana Weekly newspaper headline from February 22, 1930 headlining the murder of a 14 year-old African American girl, Hattie McCray.

Exhibition Label: Hattie McCray was a fourteen-year-old girl from New Orleans who was murdered by New Orleans police officer, Charles Guerand. Guerand fatally shot Hattie McCray after she resisted his attempt to rape her. Hattie McCray’s case brought the relationship of sexual violence between white men and black girls into the spotlight. In a report from The Journal of Southern History, it states, “White men often sexually assaulted African American girls and women in early-twentieth-century Louisiana and typically did so with impunity” (Adler 246). The majority of African American women living in New Orleans during this time experienced sexual violence. If they were lucky enough to not experience such trauma, they still grew up learning to be cautious at all times. Hattie McCray’s case was significant in exposing sexualized crime against African American girls, but the media still deflated its impact. While Guerand eventually faced the death penalty for his actions, some newspapers recounted the murder in ways that seemed to defend the officer’s actions. In describing the incident, some news outlets referred to the killing as if it were an act of self-defense. The Times-Picayune titled their first story about the incident, “Threatened with a Knife”, where they claimed that Hattie McCray reached for a knife and threatened to kill him after “‘she refused to accede to his wishes'” (Simmons 95). Essentially, African American girls had two powerful forces against them: law enforcement and the media. In relation to the argument of this exhibition, African American women had little to no voice. They were assaulted by those who were supposed to protect them and silenced by those who were supposed to report their truth. In many ways, African American women in New Orleans lived in constant fear as a defenseless demographic during the Jim Crow era.

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans L. Simmons
Citation

African American women in New Orleans, Louisiana (1890-1970)
HI-254: Final Project Kelsey O’Connor May 5, 2020 https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories

Adler, Jeffrey S. “‘A Low Caste White Man with Lust in His Heart’: Race, Deviance, and Criminal Justice in Jim Crow New Orleans.” Journal of Southern History, vol. 84, no. 2, 2018, pp. 245–276., doi:10.1353/soh.2018.0085.

“Black Girls Coming of Age: Sexuality and Segregation in New Orleans, Lakisha Michelle Simmons.” PDF Free Download, docplayer.net/46248066-Black-girls-coming-of-age-sexuality-and-segregation-in-new-orleans-lakisha-michelle-simmons.html.

Simmons, LaKisha Michelle. Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. The University of North Carolina, 2015.

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