On October 18, Lindsey Elizabeth Jones, Brown University postdoctoral research associate in education, delivered her Speaker Series lecture,"Education and Incarceration in the Lives of Marginalized Black Girls: A Historical Perspective," to a packed audience in the Dewey Conference Room of the Barus Building. Education and incarceration had overlapped, Dr. Jones stated, in Jim Crow Virginia, where black women’s groups worked to create a reform school for delinquent black girls who would otherwise have gone to jail.
For context into the climate at the time, Jones related the story of Virginia Christian, a black sixteen-year-old who, in 1912, killed her abusive white employer in self-defense after the employer assaulted her. Christian’s all-white, all-male jury quickly found her guilty and sentenced her to death by electric chair, despite legal protections for first-time juvenile offenders. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women pleaded to spare Christian’s life. Instead, her sentence was delayed until Christian turned 17 and was no longer considered a child. One day after her seventeenth birthday, Christian was executed.
At the time of Christian’s execution, black girls in Virginia were routinely incarcerated with adults. Unlike black boys and white children of both sexes, black girls lacked access to a race-segregated, single-sex juvenile reformatory. Black women across the state worked together to build an alternative to jails, and in 1915, the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women succeeded in opening the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls (VISCG). Much of the scholarship addressing the VISCG portrays it as a place where delinquent black girls were rescued from jails and protected from exposure to hardened criminals. However, Jones’ research into archival sources revealed that the VISCG also created new kinds of vulnerability and neglect for its student-inmates, who experienced isolation and labor exploitation as a result of being committed to the school.
Jones examined the VISCG’s curriculum and institutional structure, what ideas informed pedagogy at the school, and the relationship between school and state, and she noted that this institution shows the regional complexity of black female experiences of incarceration the 20th century American South. Most of the girls were incarcerated not for crimes but for status offenses such as truancy, running away from home, or inappropriate sexual behavior. Jones focused on the VISCG because it had been nationally celebrated and widely recognized as “exemplary” among all reform schools, not just those for black girls. Black women’s organizations working to build segregated reformatories in other states, such as North Carolina, sent staff members to the VISCG to get trained and bring back best practices.
Jones lamented the lack of archival sources regarding VISCG. Official records containing valuable intake interviews have been destroyed, and girls were rarely able to provide written testimony because of poor education. Jones detailed her strategies for imagining and representing the perspectives of VISCG student-inmates in her research despite this limited data. Jones hopes that her research, which reveals the limitations of advocating for black girls’ equal treatment in state systems of discipline and punishment, will create space to envision and build effective and equitable interventions for black girls from the ground up. Jones has focused her research on the South, where she next plans to conduct oral histories about the experiences of incarcerated black girls during desegregation.