Letter From the Fairview Heights Jail…38 Years Later

Empty prison cell

Empty prison cell

How did I get here…from there? One minute I’m at St. Clair Square Mall shopping with my mom, cousins and aunt. The next minute, I’m handcuffed and in the back of a squad car headed to jail.

And in the front seat, the two officers mock me by talking about having sex with a black woman. I’m 15 years old and I’m scared.

How did I get here?

One minute I was minding my own business in the Burger Chef restaurant waiting for my cousin to finish her meal, and the next minute, a white teenager, in a group of about four white teenagers, grabbed my arm as I walked by his table and called me a nigger.  When I tried to pull away, he tightened his grip and as I fought with my free hand to get away, I found myself in the middle of a real, fist throwing fight.

Except I was a 15 year old girl and he was a much taller, much bigger 17 year old guy.  And had 3 of his friends with him, including another guy.  I had my 14 year old cousin.  Another girl.  And she was in no mood to jump into the middle of the fists coming at my face and body.  We were outnumbered and out-muscled.

The white kids also apparently had the Burger Chef management as allies.  Because even though I was being beaten by 4 teens, the managers decided I was the threat that needed to be subdued.  So while the managers were holding me back, the teen Klan members were wailing on me.  Free from any restriction.

Fortunately somebody had the presence of mind to call the police.  I thought help had arrived.


The police officers talked to “them” first, and then, without asking me for my version of events, came over to me and announced that I was under arrest.  By this time, my mom had shown up and when she saw me looking disheveled and in cuffs, she understandably was upset and wanted answers.  But the police felt no obligation to tell my mom nor my aunt anything.  Nor would they wait for my mom to bring her car around so she could follow them to the police station.

So off to the “system” I went.  At the station, I had the obligatory mug shot and fingerprints taken.  I was led down a hallway to an empty room to sit “until a cell frees up”.  Next to me, I hear the 4 white teens laughing and talking.  One of them walked in the hall, saw me and came in and threatened to kick my “nigger bitch ass”.

At this point, I’ve decided that I’m already arrested, probably already in trouble with my parents, and probably already going to jail (the ramblings of a scared 15 year old mind), so an invitation to fight the Klan was an invitation I wasn’t going to pass up.  So I stood up.  I knew I couldn’t win, but I was determined to lose swinging, scratching and kicking.

But when I stood up, a white police officer stepped into the room with his hand on his gun and told me to sit down.  And then he laughed with my tormentors as he sent them back to their room next door.

Come to find out, I was charged with assault and battery, while the teen Klan were charged with nothing.  I had to go to court.  My dad wasn’t socially conscious, and I didn’t yet know how to use it properly in a sentence, let alone understand the implications of what was happening to me then, and so when I was asked how I wanted to plead to the charges, I did what my dad told me to do.

“Guilty”.  And with no priors, not even a school detention to tarnish my record, this honor roll student had a record, albeit a misdemeanor, but a record nonetheless.

Little did I know that the system was beginning to teach me what an Exceptional Nigger is.

I learned that until I could get that record expunged, I had to reveal the conviction for every job I applied for as a teenager.

I learned that once I revealed my conviction, some jobs just disappeared.

I learned that even once the record was expunged, some entities don’t care about that and I still was required to reveal any record, expunged or not.

I learned even though I was falsely accused, the system isn’t always interested in the truth.  My dad did not want to take more time off work, nor want me to miss school for a trial over this matter.  More importantly, my dad felt that in this small, white, southern Illinois town, justice would be elusive for someone who looked like me.

Maybe he was more socially conscious than I gave him credit.

Wrongfully arrested and sexualized by Fairview Heights police officers at 15 years old.  I couldn’t fully understand the significance of that sexual remark then.  But I became highly aware of the history of white people treating us–black women–as highly sexualized and good for little else than domestic work and sex, on demand.

I aged more than a little that day.

2 thoughts on “Letter From the Fairview Heights Jail…38 Years Later

    1. Ten Speaks Post author

      Thank you for taking time to read this Shannon. I hope your boys get the message loud and clear. The system doesn’t work for us.

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