Betty Jean Owens (1959, Tallahassee, Florida)
On the 2nd of May, 1959, Betty Jean Owens sat in a car with two African-American men and one other African-American female. All were students at Florida A&M University. Four white men, William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, David Beagles, and Patrick Scarborough, approached the car at Jake Gaither Park. Armed with switchblades and shotguns, the men ordered all of them out of the car. The black men were forced to kneel and then made to drive away. The two black women were left with these four white men. One of the women, Edna Richardson, broke free of the men and ran into a nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone.
Driving her to the edge of town, the men subsequently raped her seven times. During this time, the three other African-American students that were in the car with her went to the police station to report the evening’s events. The officer that night, nineteen-year-old Joe Cook Jr, surprisingly called for back-up and searched for Owens. A chase with the assailant’s car ensued and they were eventually pulled over. Owens was bound and gagged on the backseat floor. Police then arrested the four white men and took them to jail. They joked and laughed along the way, sure that nobody would care what they had done. All men confessed, in writing, to having abducted Betty at gunpoint and raping her.
When students at A&M heard what happened, groups began to plan protests to demand justice for Owens. As a result of these protests, wide media coverage, and a threat to boycott classes, Judge W. Walker called together a grand jury into special session four days after the attack, on the 6th May 1959. More than two-hundred black spectators entered the courtroom that day to watch the trail. All four men pleaded innocent, making a jury trial mandatory. This became the first time in Florida that white defendants, charged with raping a black woman, were sent to jail to await their trail.
On the 12th June 1959, Betty Jean Owens told the jury, and four-hundred witnesses, what happened that evening. The defense tried to present the men as respectable, and characterize Owens as a whore that wanted sex. The jury found the men guilty but asked for a recommendation for mercy. This latter part of the sentence ensured the four men would not face the electric chair. They were, however, sentenced to life in prison.
Five years later, David Beagles was paroled. Four years after his release, he tracked down a black American woman that he thought was Betty Jean Owens. He murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave. It turns out, however, he murdered a woman named Betty Jean Robinson Houston, a different lady.
The ordeal faced by Betty Jean Owens presented another key turning point in the rights of black women to reclaim their bodies. While it showed a lot of progress in that white men were now accountable for their actions against white women, there was still progress to be made as it appeared only a black man would gain the death penalty of rape. Overall though, local issues and a political mobilized African-American middle class, combined with media attention, created pressure for change.