Date of Award

Spring 5-2020

Author's School

College of Arts & Sciences

Author's Program

American Culture Studies

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (A.B.)




Black Delilahs traces a history of policing and criminalizing of black women’s sexuality in Progressive Era New York City. By analyzing vaudeville posters, joke books, blues music, newspapers, vice committee records, and reformatory records, this project provides a historiography of respectability politics and the sociocultural norms and practices that limited American society’s freedom of sexual expression. It subsequently explores how working-class black women engaged with commercial, public, and private urban spaces normatively associated with vice, deviancy, and disreputability in ways that subverted these expectations of respectability and empowered them. These women used creative ways to express their sexuality within the public sphere, like vaudeville stages, as well as the private sphere, like saloons and prostitution houses, within their nightlife lifestyles. However, black women were disproportionately arrested and sentenced to serve time in reformatories like the Bedford Reformatory in New York. In these reformatories, they were forced to conform to the respectable norms that previously restricted their sexuality. Ultimately, this paper disrupts the discourses about black female sexuality that defined it as absent from or harmful to the African-American experience and illustrates how these historical constructs have material effects on the lives of black women today.


Douglas J. Flowe

Additional Advisors

Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr.