by Lori Robinson
A Survivor explores an accusation that has divided the Spelman and Morehouse family
A BRISK NOVEMBER WIND GREETED ME when I returned to Spelman College last year. Fall in Atlanta was cooler than what I remembered as a freshman at the historically Black, all-women’s school. But that was a decade ago, and much more than the weather had changed. A three-story parking deck sat on what was an asphalt lot in my day. The tiny Guest House near the entrance of the small, fenced campus was gone, replaced by the year-old Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, an elegant five-story building with a museum and auditorium. Even Johnnetta Cole, affectionately known as Sister President, had announced her resignation after 10 years.
Still, as I strolled past the new guard booth, I easily slipped back into the campus’ comforting energy. College anywhere is a special time. I was blessed that my time was spent at Spelman, where people didn’t assume they were smarter or better than me because of the color of my skin. All around me that November day, young women raced in and out of red brick buildings and cut across lush green grass with confident strides. Spelman strides. I was home again.
And my heart was crumbling because of what had brought me back. I was home to write about rape.
For nearly a month, Spelman and its brother school, Morehouse College, had been in an uproar over a freshman student’s accusation that four Morehouse men had sexually assaulted her in a Morehouse dorm late one Friday night. The two schools are educational meccas for the black middle class and share a special relationship. They are next to each other, and Morehouse men and Spelman women often marry. But in the weeks before my return, the schools had been rocked as rape allegations garnered newspaper headlines and were reported on local television newscasts, packed courtrooms and seriously strained their bond.
There was irony in my returning for the case. In May of 1995, I was supposed to attend my five-year reunion at Spelman. I didn’t make it. That was the week that I was raped. In my Washington, D.C., apartment. On my bed. By two men with a gun who accosted me on my doorstep. I was 26 and forever changed.
More than a year later, when I suggested during an Emerge staff meeting that we write about rape, I had no idea that in a matter of weeks I would be back in Atlanta. I had mentioned the Spelman-Morehouse case as another example of how serious and complicated the issue is for African-American communities. When senior editors called me back for a private meeting to ask if I would return to Spelman to write the story, I hesitated. They knew about my rape, but there were many issues to consider. Could I write fairly? Could I handle it emotionally? Would it be safe for me? After all, my attackers had never been caught, and Emerge’s offices are not far from my old apartment. My editors assured me they would respect whatever I decided.
I thought about those issues during the next few days, but what I thought about most was whether I wanted people to know. My family, my close friends and a few of my colleagues knew I had been attacked, but that was all. Was I ready to give them – and countless strangers – the whole story? Was I ready to write it down in black and white for them the way it had been written in memory for me?
I was at my desk when the phone rang. Pamela Crockett, an Alexandria, Va., lawyer and rape activist I had been trying to reach for weeks, was on the other end. Shortly after my attack, I had thrown myself head on into healing. Part of the medicine is keeping in contact with women who work on this issue. She and I had met when we both spoke to high school girls about careers. In her opening comments, Pamela had mentioned sexual assault as an important issue, and we both noticed how the girls had responded with a keen interest.
I told Pamela what I was considering. In the past we had talked about the silences and the shame in our communities. How Black women are raped at the same rate as White women but are less likely to report it. How we debate the issue when “heroes” such as Mike Tyson are the accused, but never seem able to find our voices when the victim is our mother, or our daughter, or our sister, our niece, or ourselves. I am still amazed at how many women have a story to tell, either about themselves or someone they know. I went over my concerns with her about doing a story – not only about Spelman and Morehouse, but about me. Finally Pamela said simply, “I would do it if I were you.”
May 19, 1995
It was exhilarating being on my own. It hadn’t been easy living with my parents for two years, saving up money for an apartment. But I had stuck it out and wound up with a comfortable, one-bedroom apartment in Northeast Washington near Catholic University of America. It was a quiet neighborhood and considered relatively safe.
It was my four-month anniversary of independent living, and I was looking forward to attending my college reunion later that week. After visiting friends that Monday night, I drove home a little before 11:30. As I drove, I prayed for inner peace, hoping to quell the ordinary anxieties that left me feeling down from time to time. I believe now that prayer enable me to get through what was about to become the worst hour of my life.
“Great, a space across the street from my apartment building,” I thought as I drove up. Usually, street parking filled up by 8 or 9 p.m., and I would have to park behind the small, two-story apartment building where I lived. It was always too dark and spooky back there for my taste. Pleased at my good fortune, I parked and walked toward my building, thinking about the exercise video I was going to play and the dishes that needed washing.
I jumped slightly when I saw two brothers, “Funny, I didn’t notice anybody walking when I parked,” I thought once I had crossed the street. Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of two men just because they were Black. I didn’t give them a second thought. But as I reached my doorstep, one of them jumped up behind me and said something I didn’t understand. I turned around to the barrel of a gun pointing at my head. It took me a second to focus. My eyes bulged as I started to look at who was on the other end of the gun.
“You better not look at me,” he spat out.
My heart was pounding hard and fast. I felt weak, as if all the wind had left my body. It struck me then that this is what if felt like to have your life threatened. I handed over my purse.
“You can have anything you want,” I squeezed out of my burning, deflated lungs.
They ordered me to open the door, but I couldn’t get the key to work. That lock always jammed. My hands were shaking. I was talking out loud. “I know it’s this key next to the silver one.” After several of my futile tries, one of the men said, “It better open this time.”
I stopped struggling with the lock and surrendered to God. This time the key turned. They rushed me up the stairs to my apartment. Once inside, they told me to lie on the floor, then they walked around spouting questions.
“Anybody else live here? Anybody else have a key? You supposed to call anybody when you got home?”
They led me to my bedroom, sat me on my bed and continued asking questions about my belongings, reminding me not to talk so loud. “You better not be lying,” one said.
Then I was ordered to lie face down on my full-sized bed. They tied my feet to the bottom corners of the bed, and my right arm to the upper right corner. When one asked me for something else to use to tie my left hand, I told him where my belts were. Then they wrapped thick duct tape around my head, covering my eyes and mouth.
“Are they doing this so they can shoot me? Maybe they just want to make sure they have plenty of get-away time.” My thoughts raced. What was about to happen hadn’t occurred to me. Then, with a knife from my kitchen, one of them splice up the back of the right leg of my black stretch pants. Then it became clear.
“I’m about to be raped.”
I never felt so powerless as at that moment. My underwear was snipped at the side and pulled out from under me. Then I heard the sound of a zipper.
On of the rapists climbed on top of me and barked another order.
“Open it up.”
He penetrated vaginally for a few seconds, then anally.
The first guy didn’t take as long as the second one. He climbed on top of me and started vaginally too. Then he jammed his penis into my anus. He also talked a lot.
“We’re not crazy or nothing… Does your boyfriend do this to you?”
The time they pounded at me was probably a matter of minutes, but for me, those minutes seemed like hours. Every second I thought I couldn’t take any more of the pain.
“Can I come inside you?” he asked several times. Then, as if he had heard my answer through the duct tape across my mouth, he said simply – and pathetically – “Okay, I’ll pull out.”
The semen poured over my behind.
I remember wondering what it would feel like if they shot me. Maybe a single bullet in the back of the head. I thought about how terrible it would be if I just didn’t show up for work for a few days and people came looking for me. They would find me dead, tied to my bed with no underwear. Then I tried not to think about being shot. I tried not to feel any more of the pain and terror that were consuming me. At some point, I simply let go. I realized that I was powerless and helpless. Who I was the Lori I had known all my life, receded at that moment. All I wanted was for them to leave. All I wanted was to live.
I waited until the apartment was quiet and I was sure they were gone. Ordinarily a hopeless crier, I wasn’t crying at all as I worked to untie myself from the bed. I looked at the clock and noticed only an hour had passed since I had parked my car.
All the electronics from my apartment were gone. So was my car. They took the phone cord, so I summoned the courage and humility to walk down the stairs and knock on my neighbor’s door. When I had to face people, that’s when I started to cry.
After calling the police, I called my sister and began the long road to healing.
Spelman and Morehouse
On Nov. 12, I was on USAir Flight 1161 headed south to a place where Black girls are molded into women and sent out to make their mark in the world. I do not know how ready for the world the 17-year-old I met last fall will be when – and if – she graduates from Spelman. If what she says is true, that four Morehouse men raped her and three of them sodomized her, the road to self-realization will be difficult. Thinking about the case reminds me that, in a perverse way, I’m one of the lucky ones. My attackers were armed strangers who force their way into my home and into my body. No one doubted my story or suggested that the assault was my fault. Statistics show, however, that 60 to 80 percent of rape victims know their attacker. For them, the story is very different.
Except for a brief delay caused by the chaos of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the school year had started off like the others. There was a “freshman week” of activities for all the students in the Atlanta University Center, the six-member college association that includes Spelman and Morehouse. There were special bonding events, such as the annual brother-sister tea for Spelman and Morehouse. Shortly after the semester began, President Cole announced her plans to resign after the academic year. When she took the job in 1987, she promised to stay for 10 years.
She was going out with an incredible record, having exceeded the $81 million capital fund-raising goal by almost $33 million. That, with an endowment of about $143 million, gave Spelman, on of two Black all-womens’ colleges in the country, one of the richest endowments for a Black college. Who would’ve guessed that Cole would leave another special mark. How many college presidents testify at bond hearings for alleged rape defendants?
When the school year began, the Spelman teenager who spoke to Emerge on condition that her identity not be disclosed, settled into her freshman dorm room with the normal anxieties and excitement of new college students. That summer she had worried about whether she and her roommate would get along, but they hit it off immediately. She was excited about the opportunities college would offer – the new experiences, the new friends. Plus, that September she had celebrated her 17th birthday. She was away from home, away from her sheltered family life and ready to take full advantage of her new independence.
Then late one Friday night, she says, it all changed.
At a hearing on Oct. 30, she told her side of the story. She spoke so softly, court records show, that officials had to repeatedly ask her to speak up. This is her courtroom account:
Somewhere between 9 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, the freshman, her roommate and several other friends boarded a shuttle bus to go party at The Casino, a nightclub on Auburn Avenue N.E.. Spelman freshman who live on campus are not allowed to have cars, so piling onto a party-destined bus is virtually a weekend ritual. At The Casino, the young woman said she shared two or three drinks with friends. After a few hours, a male acquaintance – whose name she told the court she does not remember – drove the group to the International House of Pancakes for a late-night meal. That same guy dropped her off at Morehouse’s Frank Forbes Hall, where she visited a friend, Lorenzo McFadden, also a freshman. His roommate and another young woman, whom she didn’t know, were also there. The four of them played cards in McFadden’s third-floor dorm room, then she and the other woman played “Bust-A-Move,” a video game. After McFadden fell asleep, the Spelman freshman left, deciding to walk the short distance to her dorm alone.
At the bottom of Forbes’ stairwell, she told the court, she bumped into Herman Lamar Banks, a senior and member of Morehouse’s basketball team. They had met briefly before at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, which is shared by the six colleges of the Atlanta University Center. At Forbes, Banks was standing with Darren Peter Marshall, and Dadon Kimontte Dodd, both sophomore basketball players. She’d never met either of them she testified. Banks offered to walk her back to Spelman but asked her to wait in his room for a few minutes because he had to get something from another room. It was about 15 minutes before Morehouse’s 2 a.m. curfew for Friday and Saturday nights, which requires all visitors to leave the dorms.
Banks never walked her home.
While waiting in his first-floor room in the same hallway where the resident director resides, the young woman testified that she heard a loud banging at the window. Then it shattered. Banks, the Morehouse basketball team’s starting point guard, had broken it from the outside, she said. Why he broke it has never been explained.
She was about to leave when the few guys now gathered in the room urged her to wait in another room while they cleaned up the glass. Then she would be walked home. She decided to visit another friend in Forbes Hall, but he was not in. She left him a note before going to wait in Dodd’s room.
The room was empty for five to 10 minutes before Dodd cam in, she said. His name, he had told her, was Suave. When he sat on the bed, she stood up. She looked through his CDs, selected one and he put it on his disc player. He noticed her looking at his bottle of rum. He offered her some. She told him she couldn’t drink it straight. They then began to hunt for change to buy Cokes. She went to the vending machines in the lobby to get the sodas. She saw Banks and Marshall near the machines.
When she brought the drinks to Dodd’s room, he left to find some glasses. He came back with one and told her they’d have to do shots. The young woman said she didn’t do shots. She poured the rum and Coke into the glass and took two sips; Dodd drank the rest. In court testimony, she also would say that she had a couple of hits off a friend’s bottle of Boones Farm wine before arriving at Morehouse.
Dodd sat down on the bed again and they began to browse through a photo album, she said. They talked casually about majors. Dodd asked her to sit on the bed. When she did, he asked why she sat so far away. She told him she was leaving soon. By that time, curfew had passed.
Morehouse’s curfews are routinely broken. The rules for male visitors on Spelman’s campus are strict. Men must be off the grounds by midnight. Guards keep track of male visitors by signing them in and out and by collecting identification. Morehouse is on an honor system, and guards don’t track women visitors, a policy officials now say they are re-evaluating.
Dodd slid close to her and began touching her pants, she told the court. He asked what type of material it was. She said she didn’t know. He said he thought it was silk. She said she didn’t think so. He put his hand in her lap and began to touch her vagina through her pants, she testified. She said she didn’t think they should be doing this because they’d just met. He said sometimes people click. She said she didn’t feel like they had clicked.
In hearing a testimony, a lawyer asked the Spelman student why, at that point, she didn’t leave. She said she still felt safe, that if she asked him to stop he would. Then she added, “Now that I think about things, I look back and say there’s so much I could have done but I didn’t.”
Dodd, she said, reached above his head and turned off the light and began pulling down her pants. She tried to pull them back up, but the 6’6″ basketball player eventually got the off, she testified. He stood over her and stuck his penis in her vagina against her will, she testified. She objected and told him that she wanted to go home.
Banks and Marshall entered the room at that point and spoke to each other in whispers, she testified. The Marshall, also 6’6″, stood next to the bed. His pants were off. “This is all for you,” she said he told her as he pushed her head toward his penis and stuck it in her mouth. Marshall raped her as Banks put his penis in her mouth, she said.
Morehouse junior Tony Carnell Clark came into the room, the Spelman student said. He stood in the doorway for a moment before telling Banks that his brother was on the phone. The Spelmanite doesn’t recall Banks responding. Marshall got off her and Clark then stuck his penis in her vagina, she testified. While Banks was on top of her, Clark stuck his penis in her mouth. Clark also sodomized her, she testified.
She repeatedly said, “I do not want to do this. I want to go home,” she told the court. But the young men ignore her.
When they did back off, she was in tears. She grabbed her clothes and ran to the door. Clark stopped her there. “Haven’t I seen you before?” he asked her. Disgusted, she shook her head, but he continued. “I remember meeting you at the library, that was the last time I saw you.'” Marshall wouldn’t look at her, she said. Dodd focused on the closet. She did not account for Banks.
She ran outside Forbes Hall, but there was a crowd of people there and she couldn’t bear to walk past them, so she ran back upstairs to her friend McFadden’s room, she testified. She banged on the door, but there was no answer. She called from the pay phone down the hall, but there was still no answer. She banged on the door again. This time his roommate answered. Still crying, she woke McFadden and told him she needed him to walk her home.
“He kept on asking me what was wrong…and I couldn’t tell him. I said I just need for you to walk me home,” she said. He told her he wasn’t going to walk her home until he knew why she was crying. She finally told him.
She also told her roommate, Jackie Holland, daughter of Spelman board chairman Bob Holland, former CEO of ice cream-maker Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. It was Holland who called a cab and took her to Grady Memorial Hospital’s rape crisis center, where she underwent a rape examination.
The examinations can by physically and emotionally painful. Far worse than any gynecological exam, doctors must scrap inside the body for “evidence.” What I remember most about my exam is that it felt like another rape.
Early that Saturday morning, the young woman reported the incident to Spelman’s security force. Five days later, on Oct. 2, she filed a report with Atlanta’s police department. Banks, Clark, Dodd and Marshall were arrested the next day.
Face To Face
Finding her is easier than I thought it would be. I ask around and am eventually directed to her dorm door. I introduce myself to a young woman standing in the door. I tell her who I am looking for and she shakes her head. “I’m just a friend,” she says and points to another young woman who is sitting on a bed, talking on the phone. She is a petite, attractive woman. I introduce myself, explain that I am a journalist. I tell her that I am a rape victim, too, but spare her details, saying only that I was attacked at gunpoint in my home. I mention, too, that I am a Spelmanite.
Our situations are so different. She is 17, in her first semester of college. I am already a woman, out of college, working. My story has never been questioned . For her, others’ doubts are a given, and their accusatory questions are a fact of life. What was she wearing? What was she doing in the dorm so late? And why was she alone?
Even I must reserve judgment. The four accused men are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Her soft, quiet voice does not fill the tiny room where we sit. The floor is cluttered with magazines, shoes and other items you’d expect to find in a college dorm room. There are lots of pictures of her family and friends on the wall above her bed. She and her mother. Her sister, who is older, out of college and working, like me. Family and friends have been with her in court, and her sister testified at one hearing.
During our brief time together, friends drop in to check on her. She tells me that she rarely goes to class and sees a private therapist. She slowly shakes her head at how much of a spectacle this whole thing has become.
I am not sure if I could have stayed on campus. I never returned to the apartment where I was assaulted. My sister, my boyfriend and other friends moved my things. Police found my car, which the attackers used to get away. I drove it once, from the police station to my parents’ home. A short time later, it was traded.
I think, too, about the 14-7year-old high school student at New York’s Manhattan center for Math and Science who was forced to perform oral sex on the schools’ basketball star, Richie Parker, and one of Parker’s friends, in January 1994. She was harassed so much that eventually she was forced to transfer. The Spelman freshman has received an anonymous letter implying that she was ruining the lives of four promising black men.
So why does she stay? “They’ve already taken so much from me,” she says.
The four young men tell a different story. Three say they engaged in consensual sex with the Spelman freshman. The fourth, Marshall, says he had no sexual contact with her at all. They have all pleaded not guilty. Though I have had several conversations with their lawyers, I have not had access to the young men. But within hours of being on campus, I learn that they are well-liked.
On Thursday, Oct. 3, Atlanta police arrested the four on Morehouse’s campus, and took them to the Atlanta City Detention Center before eventually moving them to the Fulton County Jail. They would spend nearly a month and a half in jail, their names and faces flashed across television screens, their alleged crimes recounted in print.
The first time I see them it is at a bond hearing. It is Nov. 14, the day before they will be released from jail. They are marched into a crowded courtroom, each wearing a blue prison jumpsuit with “Fulton County Jail” emblazoned in white.
Banks, the shortest of the four at 5’7″, is Morehouse’ starting pint guard. His youthful, light-brown face belies his age. He turned 21 the day before he was freed on bail. Banks grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where his father is a retired police officer. His mother works in the registrar’s office of Roxbury community College. And his sister, Chandra Banks, a 1991 Spelman graduate, is president of the Boston chapter of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College.
Clark is a Morehouse junior who also grew up in Cambridge, and like Banks, spent his 21st birthday behind bars. He is on academic scholarship and the only defendant no on the basketball team. His father is deceased and him mother teaches preschool.
‘Dodd, a 20-year-old sophomore, is the youngest and one of the tallest at 6’6″. His parents are divorced. His mother, an administrative assistant, now lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., near Atlanta. His father is vice president of a steel company in Detroit. His basketball skills were good enough to win him a scholarship to Morehouse.
Darren Marshall is also a sophomore, but is the oldest of the four at 26. Even with his long, brown face and mustache, he appears younger. A native of Trinidad, he was required to surrender his passport as a condition of his release on bail. A younger brother is also a Morehouse student, and their parents live in New York, but unlike the parents of the other young men, they cannot make the trip to Atlanta.
They are Morehouse men, with family and friends who love them. And, according to a young African-American woman, they are the four men who raped her. For young Black men to successfully navigate the pitfalls and dangers that ensnare so many others, it is particularly painful for their family and friends to believe that their lives may be destroyed. If convicted, they face a minimum sentence of 10 years with no probation or parole, up to life in prison, the maximum for rape in Georgia. At an Oct. 30 court hearing, the sodomy charges, which also carry a minimum 10 years to life, were dropped because the judge believed it would be impossible for the accuse to say which of the students committed it.
In this drama, their lives and futures have been pitted against the life and future of their accuser.
I have squeezed into a seat in the back of the courtroom. As it was for a hearing nearly a month earlier, on Oct. 16, the room is packed. By all accounts, that October hearing was an emotional, tense and dramatic scene. The Spelman freshman’s parents and three of the four defendants’ mothers were there. President Cole’s testimony that day played a pivotal role in the initial denial of bail.
Spelman senior Cara Grayer, a friend of Clark’s, was there.
“That was one of the most emotional courtrooms I’ve sat in in a long time,” says Grayer, whose father is a lawyer. “I was sitting next to Dadon Dodd’s mother… They would say 25 years to life. Dadon Dodd’s mother would run out of the room…The mother of the girl – [when] they would say [the charge of] ‘sodomy’, she would…run out of the room.”
A month later, emotions would be just as high, but there had been a development in the days before that had bolstered the young men’s supporters. There had been reports that a security guard had found their accuse in her friend McFadden’s dorm room days before the November hearing. She was hiding in a close, supposedly, with her pants down around her knees.
When I hear this, I, like many, begin to have doubts. I ask her about the accusation when we meet. She does not deny being in McFadden’s room. They have grown closer – platonically, she stresses – since the attack. He has become one of the people she talks to and that is what they were doing when she was found in his room. And her pants being down? “He’s lying,” she says of the security guard’s accusation.
At the bond hearing, defense attorneys bring one character witness after another to testify for their clients. Among them were Banks’ sister, Dodd’s former boss and a Morehouse assistant basketball coach. The young men also take the stand to answer questions about their character. No details of that night are discussed. The most dramatic moment comes when an attorney asks all those present in support of the defendants to stand.
The display of support stuns me. I try to count the people still in their seats, but can’t see in front of me because there are so many people standing. I would learn later that the Spelmanite also had been in the courtroom.
The hearing was enough to persuade Judge Gail S. Tusan, a Black woman, to set bail at $30,000 for each of the accused.
In an inter view later, Ted Lackland, Tony Clark’s lawyer, tells me this case reminds him of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black men who in 1931 were falsely accused of raping two White girls. Eight received death sentences and once received life in prison. Their case inspired a successful international campaign for their freedom. “The presumption is that it must have been a rape because that kind of thing is beneath her,” he says of this case.
His point leaves me wondering abut questions I do not ask. What if the young men accused had been White fraternity boys? What would he have said then? But Black women have always been put in the position of choosing between racial and sexual oppression.
Grayer, like many students on Spelman’s campus, is torn. “It’s very, very difficult and that’s where a lot of students are being put in that position,” she says. “They’re being asked to choose. …you either have to stand behind the women or you have to stand behind the men, there’s no middle ground. I stand firmly against rape. At the same time, I stand firmly that I hold one of the young men in my heart. And that’s what’s most disturbing about this case.
“That’s what makes it high-profile, when you see the mothers and they’re in tears, all of them…That is a mother’s worst nightmare…to send your daughter away to college, and then at the same time to have your young man that you’ve raised…to know that they’ve assaulted another woman. I think that that has to be the hardest thing on earth.”
Grayer says she has chosen to support her friend, Clark. The circumstances, she says, are questionable anyway, and she does not want to see his future lost.
Hers is a view not foreign to African-American women. I am a Black woman, too, and I understand. I, too, cringe at the thought of one more Black man being turned over to a flawed criminal justice system. I have a brother and a father and other Black men in my life whom I love and respect. My brother was falsely accused and arrested once for mugging an elderly White woman when he was in college in Tacoma, Wash. If my father had not had the money to fly across the country and hire a lawyer, who knows how long my brother would have been in jail. The thought of any of my loved ones behind bars – or the thousands of men wrongly jailed – ties me in knots of sadness and anger. But I also know this: One of my greatest fantasies is to castrate the men who raped me.
Evelyn C. White, author of Chain Chain Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships, says there is a “great sense of racial loyalty that exists among Black women. Black women, because of racism, are very, very aware and understanding and empathetic toward the African-American men who sexually assault us.”
Still, questions remain. What if the Spelmanite is lying? It has happened, though I don’t understand why someone would put themselves through the emotional or physical horrors of doing such a thing. No matter what, her college years have been ruined. College will not be the wonderful experience it should be. But I am force to concede that anything is possible.
But what if she is telling the truth? This type of hell I already know the answer to. Rape is a violation that forever changes you. To confront it on a campus or in a courtroom, take s tremendous fortitude. I could not imaging being in a courtroom where a sea of people stand up against me.
A final question comes to me: What if she’s telling the truth, and so are the defendants – at leas that they believe they are innocent? What if they think that what happened is okay? Nathan McCall writes, in Makes Me Wanna Holler, about “running trains” on women – women who may not have fought or resisted, but who were certainly tricked or coerced into a situation that devalued and demeaned them. I listen to students such as Grayer and conclude that that would be the worst of all.
The sister-brother bonds between Spelman and Morehouse have been strained. The case has forced a tight-knit community to examine its attitudes about sexual violence. Some Morehouse students have said they felt betrayed by President Cole’s strong support of the Spelman student. They are disappointed, too, in what they consider their own administration’s lack of support for their four schoolmates.
“Everybody becomes consumed by it, students, faculty, staff, it’s almost like a struggle to try to understand, and people hold on to beliefs,” says Vice Provost Eddie Gaffney, a Morehouse graduate who worked at the University of South Carolina for 17 years. “At the University of South Carolina, they’d see [this] as an individual problem. Here, it’s a family problem.”
For a white it seemed the family was divided into two camps.
Cole set the tone at Spelman. She took the freshman into her home for a few days immediately after the incident. At a town hall meeting, she urged students to support their schoolmate. And when she testified at the hearing where bail for the four accused men was denied, she got the best of a defense lawyer who tried to spar with her. Spelman students followed her lead, attending public meetings and holding discussions on sexual violence. They decorated a board of supportive wishes in the Manley College Student Center. They young woman’s friends rallied around her, supporting her decision to remain on campus, getting her assignments from professors, turning them in for her, as she rarely left her dorm.
There were about 80 women and fewer than a dozen men at a speak-out against sexual violence sponsored by the Women’s Research and Resource Center when I was on campus. SGA president Ardenia Johnson talked a lot about personal accountability. She recalled Spelmanites complaining about an offensive image on a flier advertising a club. She said students were ready to burn bras, Snoop Doggy Dogg tapes and anything they could get the hands on that denigrated women. But by the next week, she says, they were back partying at the same spot.
Morehouse’s administration wasn’t far behind Cole. The school began its own investigation into the matter on Sept. 30. Administrators immediately suspended the four students for the academic year for violation of college rules. It said the suspensions were not related to the criminal charges but the violation of the campus rules regarding conduct.
“For generations, Morehouse has set very high standards of ethics and morality for its students, staff and faculty, standards that must be upheld at all times,” said the school’s Oct. 7 statement. “The College determined through its investigation that the behavior of the students in this case was not consistent with behavior expected and demanded of Morehouse students.
“The College is deeply concerned and saddened that anyone, especially a student at our sister institution, Spelman College, may have been the victim of violence or abuse . Inappropriate sexual conduct has never been acceptable on the Morehouse campus and will not be tolerated now.”
At a school assembly that same day, John H. Hopps, provost of Morehouse College, made similar remarks. Faculty members answered questions about the incident at a forum that night in King Chapel. At least 1,500 students attended the town hall meeting and what faculty and staff heard that night took some by surprise, says Gaffney. “That’s when we really found out that a lot of young men had no idea about the sexual politics of present times,” he says.
If statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are nay indication, such educational efforts are desperately needed on all college campuses, not just African-American ones. From 15 percent to 25 percent of male college students admit to involvement in some level of sexual aggression. Additionally, more than 80 percent of rapes on college campuses are committed by someone the victim knows.
At Morehouse, while there was tough talk about the abuse of women, there was also another side to the discussion. In handouts distributed on college stationery, the administration said it was considering a defense fund for the four accused students. Five lawyers volunteered to teach students about their legal rights.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, wants to know who will teach young African-American men at Morehouse and around the country about respecting Black women?
“There is an assumption that Black men are being targeted, or that there’s actually some conspiracy to destroy Black men,” she says. “I think that’s the scenario around which these cases get framed and that it’s very difficult to separate those notions.”
Lawrence Edward Carter, dean of the Morehouse chapel, didn’t help the campus friction much. During regular worship services, a day before the Oct. 7 assembly, Carter suggested that women bring abuse upon themselves because of their attitudes and their dress. Some Spelman students walked out. Later, nine Spelmanites responded in a pointed letter that was printed Oct. 14 in Morehouse’s newspaper, The Maroon Tiger:
“We found your understanding of the true issues involved in the violent crime of rape to be faulty. As evidence of this, we point to the particularly offensive description of the woman wearing ‘a strip of tap,’ the woman whose skirt was ‘sprayed on,’ and that she was ‘an accident waiting to happen.’ …You victimized the victim in your remarks, and this was unfair, inappropriate and un-Christian.
“…You suggested that a heinous crime of violence perpetrated against a Spelman woman by Morehouse men should be excused or even justified because the sisters are ‘loose,’ and the brothers are weak and must be expected to succumb to ‘temptation.’ Rape is not about lust or attire; it is about power and control.”
They demanded an apology. Carter was suspended for an unspecified period. He issued a five-paragraph response/apology which The Maroon Tiger printed the same day, and agreed to attend a joint worship service at Spelman’s Sisters Chapel but he did not show up.
Says Hopps: “Let me be very clear. Morehouse College absolutely rejects any such notion. No individual, no man or woman, ever deserves to be abused by virtue of the clothing they choose. We abhor any suggestion to the contrary.”
Says Antonio Johnson, Morehouse’s student government association president, whose mother was raped when he was a child, “Dean carter, in my opinion, should be fired. Those statements, I think, were extremely insensitive to women. He knew of the sensitivity of the moment, and that’s why I’m so outraged about it.”
Some students were disappointed in the Morehouse administration for other reasons.
“I didn’t like the positions the college took,” says Baimba Norman, a junior from Liberia, who believes Morehouse turned its back on the young men. “I don’t think they should have suspended them…Other people break curfew rules. If it was based on that, on breaking curfew rules, hundreds of people would be suspended because that happens daily.”
Another junior, Darnik McAlpin, expressed a common attitude toward the Spelman freshman. “Why was she over here at that time by herself?” asks the Augusta, Ga., native. “Maybe [she] got mad afterwards…There’s no justification for doing that, don’t get me wrong…But I think she was there, and she had sex with all those guys, and afterwards, maybe she was feeling guilty.
“…Like Mike Tyson and Desiree [Washington]…one of those things where after they finished with her, instead of letting her stay over or whatever, they’re like, ‘You better go ahead and get out…’ She got mad.
“The law is messed up for the simple fact that a girl can lie. I can have sex with her one night, and then the next day we get in an argument and then she accuses you of rape the night before…My word against hers. I’m already in jail. It’s already on my record.”
Craig Boyd, who works for Morehouse’s sports medicine department and knows all four defendants, says, “Someone should have said this is wrong,” but he does not believe a crime was committed that night.
Kevin Ladaris, a senior and a leader of the campus group Men for the Eradication of Sexism, says he believes so many male students doubt that a rape occurred because they see themselves in similar situations. That is parallel to women blaming the victim, he says, because if the men didn’t do anything wrong, then any woman is vulnerable to rape.
Says Rev. Aubra Love, director of the Black Church and Domestic Violence Task Force at the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, “We have a rape culture which does not accept rape as violence and treats rape as if it has something to do with sex, when in fact, if we could talk plainly, it’s like a mugging with a body, assault with a penis.”
For Kevin Ladaris, of Morehouse, the campus incident has irony. It occurred the same weekend that his organization hosted its forum on violence against women.
At press time, the four men had not been indicted and no court date had been set. “The investigation is still on-going,” says Terri Lawson-Adams, a spokesperson for the Fulton County district attorney’s office. Atlanta police also are still investigating the charges.
Morehouse officials, meanwhile, have readmitted the four to classes and extracurricular activities. Their original one-year suspensions – for violating college rules and standards of conduct – were appealed and later reduced to one semester.
The day I leave campus I am exhausted. I have spent my last hours trying to arrange to speak with the four men. It never works out. I also try to call the accuser, but there is no answer. I walk across the campus and remember that this is where I first learned what it meant to believe in myself and my dreams. For me, like it is for so many women, it was an academic and social haven. I try to calm my stomach by telling myself if there is a place where lessons will be learned about confronting sexual violence in our communities, it will be here. If we do not, it will continue to eat away at us. The government reports a recent drop in rapes, but the crime remains a serious problem. As it has been true here, as it is true in my own life and the lives of others, rape – or even the allegation of rape – touches more than the accuser and accused. It devastates families, friends, communities.
I do not know how the Spelman student – or even the four from Morehouse – will fare. My own recovery continues and I believe it is a lifelong struggle.
Although I was blessed to never have nightmares, the fears of my waking hours – the fear of disease, of my family being tracked down and hurt by the rapists, of unknowingly bumping into them – left me drained of energy and happiness for months after all, I never got a good look at the gunman’s face, and never saw the other rapist’s face. The police told me that the assailants were believed to have raped at least three other women. To my knowledge, they have not been caught.
My biggest obstacles in healing became lingering fears of being harmed again, by the rapists or other men. And I was furious over the disruption in my life, the loss of my treasured independence. I had to change my car, my home, and alter my psyche. My life was turned upside down.
The day after the attack, after I had told my family, I began telling the other people close to me. A girlfriend shocked me with her response, a shrill shriek and then uncontrollable sobbing. It confirmed my concern that even though the rape was not my fault, I now had no choice but to cause pain for those close to me.
When I told my mom, she looked as if she might pass out for a second, then she immediately began to talk about what needed to be done. My boyfriend repeated it back to me. “Did you just say you were robbed and raped?” he said as if he was hoping he heard wrong. I remember begging for his friendship and support, fully expecting him not to want to deal with a basket case. “This will only bring us closer together,” he told me. Nothing could have been more comforting. My family and friends, and the love and tender care of my boyfriend, have helped me survive and to grow stronger in spirit and resolve.
I guess more than anything, what I carry with me as I walk out of this valley in my life is a commitment to help end the silence. A close male member of my family could not bring himself to speak to me about my rape for an entire year. The last time we were both at Spelman was on my graduation day.
I have learned that he cried when told about my rape. I wonder what it would have been like if we had cried – and healed – together.
Haunted by History
In addition to the guilt and shame that can accompany sexual assault, Black women often face the additional burdens of race and history, which can encourage them to minimize their own pain and excuse or protect their attacker, say some who have studied the issue. Whether it is the case of Celia, a teenage slave girl who was hanged in Missouri for killing her White rapist, or the film, Birth of a Nation, conceived to perpetuate the myth of the Black rapist, African-American women have learned to be silent about sexual assault.
“One of the reasons that historically rape has been more complicated for Black people [is] there is the history…of Black men being falsely accused of rape, even though most of that memory is [of being] falsely accused by White women, ” says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center. “So I think that the whole issue of rape is already a contested terrain within the Black community.”
Stereotypes of hypersexual African-Americans grew out of the slavery-era ethos. For the first centuries of this nation’s existence, it was accepted, even expected for White men to sexually assault black women slaves, a way for owners to produce more “property” and constantly demonstrate their total ownership of Africans.
One of the most egregious and documented cases was that of Celia, who in 1850, at the age of 14, was bought by Robert Newsom, a 70-year-old farmer. After years of repeated rapes by Newsom, Celia killed him. The court rejected the notion that she had the right to resist. She was charged with first-degree murder and hanged.
Once slavery ended, myths about Black sexuality festered, and the protection of White women’s virtue became another rationalization for brutalizing African-American men and women.
In the 1890s, journalist Ida B. Wells reported that about one-fourth of lynching victims were accused of attempted rape or rape. Recorded lynchings from 1882 to 1962 number nearly 5,000, and many more unrecorded murders by White mobs cut short Black lives. Whites also lynched Black men who had attempted to avenge their loved ones who had been raped.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 work, Birth of a Nation, went a long way toward immortalizing such ideas. That movie dramatized Civil War and Reconstruction history from a White southerner’s perspective, and fictionalized the origin of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film, a lecherous Black man attempts to harm White women. The film concludes with Klan members gallantly riding to the rescue.
Griffith said he wanted “to create a feeling of abhorrence in White people, especially White women, against Colored men.”
Considered the technically sophisticated forerunner of today’s feature films, the blockbuster grossed more than $18 million and was the first movie screened at the White House. More than anything, however, it reinforced a violent, racist and sexist culture that African-Americans continue to navigate today.
Conversely, Guy-Sheftall says, “Historically, we know that the rape of Black women has been paid absolutely no attention to by the larger society.”
That legacy is never far behind, Guy-Sheftall says, arguing that it plays itself out between African-American men and women, both in high-profile media cases and those cases where the rape is never reported.
Says Guy-Sheftall, “In an ironic kind of way, when Black men get accused of rape, the Black woman almost gets put in the same category as White women who accuse Black men of rape, and she becomes the enemy, too.” – Lori S. Robinson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article originally appeared in Emerge: Black America’s Newsmagazine. It closed in 2000.
Lori S. Robinson is the author of I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse, published in March 2003 by Seal Press. Since then, she has been speaking at colleges, community organizations and churches across the country and abroad about sexual violence.
Robinson earned a master’s degree in journalism from New York University in 1994. She graduated from Spelman College with a bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish in 1990.