About Recy Taylor
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
In conversation with Recy’s brother, Robert Corbitt.
Recy Taylor was a black sharecropper. Recy Taylor was also a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. Before any particular label, Recy Taylor was her own person and on the evening of September 3rd, 1944 she was the victim of a gang rape by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama. None of her attackers were convicted or even indicted, and it took years before she received an apology from Alabama’s state government for the egregious mishandling of her case. After renewed public attention in 2010, there was increased pressure on the Alabama government and Recy Taylor was finally issued an apology in 2011. Recy passed away in 2017. I had a conversation with her brother Robert Corbitt about the 67 years in between the time of the attack and when his sister finally received justice and this is some of what he shared with me.
Recy Corbitt was the oldest of the seven Corbitt siblings and when their mother passed away after an illness, Recy moved into a caretaker role in the family. Robert, only 13 months old when this happened describes her as “the only mother [he] ever knew.” Even at 80 years old, Recy would still refer to her brother as the baby of the family. When she got married to Willie Guy Taylor and had a daughter Joyce Lee, the three stayed close to the family so she could continue to support her siblings emotionally.
Robert explains that Recy was the avid churchgoer out of the seven siblings and was excited to go the revival that Sunday at the Rock Hill Holiness Church. Robert provides more context about the times. “There was a lot of rape going on in the tri-state area. [There was also] a lot of lynching.” As a safety precaution, Recy walked home from the revival with her friend Fannie Daniel and her teenage son West Daniel. They were about halfway back when a green Chevrolet stopped by them on the road. The three of them knew to take off running when the car stopped. Hugo Wilson was driving the car with six other passengers inside, Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, and Robert Gamble, all armed. Herbert Lovett, then a US Army Private, was wielding a shotgun. Recy had tried to run into the woods, but ran into a fence and was dragged back to the car blindfolded and at gunpoint. They drove her to another location and Billy Lovett threatened to “cut her damn throat” if she didn’t act like she did with her husband.” After several hours, they let her go, but not before threatening to kill her if she told anyone.
Recy’s father Benny had gone looking for her after hearing about the abduction from the Daniels and eventually found her. “They [had] warned her that if she told anybody they would kill her but when Recy got back, she told everything to the police. The next night those guys tried to carry out their promise to kill her by firebombing the house.”
“We were getting threats pretty regularly.” After the firebombing, the family received numerous threats, but they also wondered whether some of the threats Sheriff Corbitt (white, but a common surname due to slavery) alerted them to were fabricated in order to dissuade them from continuing to seek justice. Robert recalls that his father took to guarding the house with a shotgun from the porch and spending nights in the backyard tree with his gun so that he would be able to see anyone coming to the house. Benny Corbitt didn’t allow the children to play out of sight with the other local children and Robert also began to struggle in school.
Recy got in contact with the NAACP and Montgomery chapter investigator Rosa Parks was sent up to Abbeville. The sheriff dragged Rosa Parks from their house and threatened to jail her if she returned to town, but she still returned. The NAACP was able to get Recy’s story out to the black press in other parts of the country and national support came pouring in.
Recy had been accused of being a prostitute and offered money to just pretend it had never happened, but finally went through two grand jury hearings. A recording of her testimony was played for the grand jury in place of her speaking in front of them. Despite admission of event on the part of her attackers, the two all-white male grand juries (blacks were not allowed within 2 blocks of the courthouse on that day, let alone on the jury) were hesitant to indict for what was seen as “fun that had gotten out of hand”. After the second grand jury decided not to indict, attention faded from her case and activists moved on. Billy Howerton lived across the road from the Corbitts, and they would avoid eye contact whenever they crossed paths. In the period afterward, Joe Culpepper went off to fight in the Korean War and upon returning was honored as a War Hero in a local parade, Robert recalls.
Recy built her life over the years but she was still traumatized by the rape and by its aftermath. “She never got over that rape.” Her sister and brother share more of the changes they saw in her after the Church members would tell Robert that his sister should “Let it go [and] put it in God’s hands,” but Recy would talk to her brother about how painful it still was for her. “I promised her that when I retired from New York I was coming back to [Alabama] and I was going to get the city of Abbeville to give her an apology.”
After working for more than 40 years in New York, Robert retired and returned to Alabama to fight for his sister. In doing his research he discovered that all the files relating to his sister were missing. It seemed that the police had cleared out everything in the courthouse with Recy’s name on it and current government officials were reluctant to look into the old case. Robert finally started to gain some traction when he contacted the NAACP who in contact with some journalists who were interested in Recy’s case. Danielle L. McGuire was recording stories of women who disappeared or were assaulted during Jim Crow for a book called At The End of The Street and was able to get access to more information. It was published in 2010. Recy was finally issued an apology in 2011. The release of the book also drew the attention of filmmaker Nancy Buirski, who eventually released the documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor in 2017, which includes Recy Taylor, her family, and some other Abbeville locals discussing what had transpired in the area in the 40s.
There was a lot of additional pain because of how interference with the legal process led to Recy’s attackers never being indicted. During our conversation, Robert repeatedly notes, “She outlived them all.” Recy, 24 when it happened, was older than all of her attackers, but the last of them died in 2010, while Recy passed away in 2017. It almost sounds like the universe gave Recy the chance to share her story, having been interviewed for the documentary before she passed away. “There were a lot of people getting raped in those days, but Recy spoke out about it. After she spoke up, the gang rapes just about stopped. ” One of the Corbitts’ neighbors was the victim of a rape and had been threatened as well. Recy speaking out about her rape encouraged many others to speak out, “She was a sweet woman but if you wronged her she wouldn’t hush,” Robert says. Despite this, her personal story faded from the national consciousness for years.
Robert recounts, when speaking about violence in the local area, “I don’t think there was a black family back in those days that didn’t have somebody that was lynched in their family. As a matter of fact my father’s first cousin Jesse Corbitt, he was lynched in 1908.” He also shares that he’d researched this relative and visited his house, though it has now been torn down. He was even able to find the home of the man that killed him.
These stories might fade from the public consciousness, but they don’t fade for victims like Recy Taylor, and they don’t fade for their families.