While this shift is encouraging, these considerations are long overdue. The reality is that this country has a long history of state-sanctioned violence against African American children that reveals the deadly stakes of inattention to the humanity of black children.
Like adults, black children also regularly experience deadly encounters with police and state-authority: Tamir Rice (killed in 2014) and Aiyana Jones (killed last month) were 12 and 7 years old, respectively, when they were shot. Black children also are regularly physically assaulted by officers at schools; recently a video circulated showing a screaming 6-year-old girl aggressively handcuffed and removed from her classroom. There is also a school-to-prison pipeline for black children, as disproportionately harsh school-discipline and punishment are linked to juvenile offenses and black children are even tried as adults in criminal courts.
These issues and history should be central, not secondary to discussions of police violence. For over two centuries, the state has imposed violence against black children as a means of establishing and maintaining white supremacy. From slavery to Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement and today, African American children have been targeted in ways that suppress their present and future attainment of citizenship rights. The lack of awareness of this history has much to do with the way society fails to recognize black children as children.
The youngest person ever executed in the United States was a 12-year-old black girl. In 1786, Hannah Ocuish, a child of African and Native American descent, was sentenced to death in Connecticut. White townspeople accused her of murder after they discovered a white child maimed and dead. Ocuish initially denied murdering the young girl, but after mounting pressure tearfully confessed to the crime and was hanged. Death by execution based on a child’s “confession” was just the start of America’s state-sanctioned violence against black children.
During slavery, black children were treated as property and had no legal rights. When they resisted enslavement, they were punished harshly. Slave patrols, one of the earliest forms of organized policing, hunted fugitive and sometimes free African Americans including children and sentenced them to enslavement. Enslaved children who rebelled against enslavement were also executed, as was the case for James Guild (12), Jane Huff (15) and Rosanne Keen (16), three black children executed in New Jersey in the early 19th century.
On the other hand, white children were increasingly protected and viewed as appropriate beneficiaries of social reform. Early child welfare movements including the orphan movement, child-labor and prison reform movements actively excluded or subjugated African American children. White reformers denied admission to black children in juvenile reformatories in the early 19th century and if they were convicted of crimes, black children were sent to adult penitentiaries. Black children were sentenced for crimes of poverty including petty theft and vagrancy, and received disproportionately harsh sentences including life in prison.
Following the Civil War, white authorities not only treated and tried African American children as adults, but also relied upon their criminalization to supplant the plantation hierarchy of the South. In the wake of emancipation, whites filled Southern prisons with African American adults and children, who were then leased out as cheap labor to private farms and corporations. As convict-laborers, black children endured deadly conditions of labor in fields and industrial camps. The recent discoveries of the bodies of convict laborers in Sugarland, Tex., who labored in the late 19th century include the heartbreaking reality that children as young as 14 toiled on the land, died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Teens, children and most shockingly infants were victims of lynchings by whites during the Jim Crow era. The lynch mob and the police often went hand in hand; lynching often followed arrests and included direct participation by police. As Ida B. Wells’s diligent journalism revealed, these lynchings were a tool of maintaining white supremacy. In one of the most heinous cases, whites lynched Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant, in 1918. While she was still alive and hanging by her feet, the white mob slit open her stomach, and stomped on the baby. Whites murdered black children with impunity.
African American children’s mistreatment in the criminal justice system has often spurred and radicalized social movements. The Scottsboro boys, the execution of George Stinney Jr. — the youngest person ever executed by electric chair — and the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 made clear the stakes of the civil rights movement. For black activists, it was not only about their children’s civil rights to equal schooling and desegregation, it was also about their basic human rights to exist. Over 50 years later, the Central Park Five — five black children and teens who were falsely accused and sentenced to 6 to 13 years for rape — proved injustice endured in the criminal justice system by 1989. One of the boys, only 16 years old, was tried as an adult.
So it is apt that protesters are focusing on defunding the police by removing them from schools, where they have long contributed to the centuries-long history of the criminalization of black children. Recognizing black children have been targets of white supremacist violence and centering them in the movement for Black Lives can help ensure black children’s lives matter today.