She Survived This Massacre And Testified Before Congress. But Did She Win Justice?

black americans attacked in memphis riot illustration
Zain Murdock
January 27, 2023

In 1866, the Memphis massacre claimed the lives of 46 Black people, injuring many more. It all started when a fight broke out over white police officers harassing a group of Black residents. 

But the case of a formerly enslaved, disabled Black trans woman named Frances Thompson is lesser known.

As rage intensified outside in the middle of the night, seven white men, including two cops, arrived at Thompson’s home, where she also took care of a 16-year-old girl named Lucy Smith. When Thompson refused their sexual advances, the men raped and robbed them both.

With her detailed memory of that night, Thompson became likely the first transgender person to testify before the United States Congress, and was vital to civil rights legislation efforts of that era. 

Unfortunately, ten years later, Thompson was arrested for “crossdressing,” and sent to a prison chain gang. She died only a few months after her release.

Though it’s many decades later, Black trans women are still disproportionately harassed and killed by civilians and police today. All Black women and girls are at disproportionate risk for sexual abuse in general. And survivors of assault continue to be criminalized and denied help.

It’s clear that the criminal legal system isn’t designed for our safety. In Thompson’s memory, we have to look to each other to be heard, protected, respected, and loved.

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