"All Kinds of Money": Black Women on the Moving and the Policing of Urban Alley Workers, 1900-1935
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
African American Studies
“All Kinds of Money”: Black Women on the Move and the Policing of Urban Alley Workers, 1900-1935 is a story about labor refusal, informal wage earning, and the rise of “criminal” identification in North America. My dissertation examines the migration, working, and carceral histories of Black women dubbed by police and press as “rollers” and “alley workers.” By the turn of the 20th century, white newspaper outlets regularly printed articles with headlines such as “Rolled by a Negress,” “Caught White Man in Alley,” and “Gang of Negresses Prey On White Men.” The racializing and labeling of rollers as a professional “criminal” class evolved from the everyday police complaints that came from white male Johns reporting that a “negress prostitute” had picked their pockets for a wallet or roll of cash. As a unique form of underground labor resistance, rolling Johns reflected an unorthodox picket line, a general strike, or an uprising against the criminalization and economic exploitation of Black women’s sexuality. Instead of a set wage, rollers insisted that men pay with all the cash they carried, even if it meant their last cent. I weave prison and police files, newspapers, and maps together to provide a social, legal, and geographical history of urban rollers and alley workers in North America between 1900 and 1935. I follow Nettie Weems—a notorious roller marked by police in as many as 12 different cities from Chicago to Vancouver to California—over a 20 year period. Weems’ migration and working history provides an alternative narrative to the Great Migration settlement story. Organized in four parts, each with two chapters, I map Black women’s migration patterns; how they confronted sex work and how they were policed and prosecuted in the urban city. Part One, “Looking for a Fugitive Negress” examines Black women on the move and the rise of criminal identification in North America from the 1850’s to the 1930’s. This part begins with a teenage Weems on the run as a “fugitive from Justice” in Chicago in 1914. Part Two, “Has Pictures of her in Various Cities,” follows Weems across the border to British Columbia, Canada in 1925 where one Black migrant woman stated there was “all kinds of money” in Vancouver’s underground sex economy. I reveal how police identification and surveillance technologies, including fingerprints and mug shots, followed migrant sex workers across city, state, and international borders. Police tracking also illuminates the extreme mobility of rollers in North America in the early 20th century. The third part, “Police Have Declared War,” examines the social construction of urban rollers and alley workers and the aggressive city wide campaigns targeting Black women. Chapters five and six highlight Weems’ migration from Vancouver back across the US border to Washington then to Sacramento where she hides out as a fugitive in 1925 before serving a four year prison term at San Quentin State Prison in California. The final part, “Comet in its Orbital Track” follows Weems out of prison in California where she travels back to British Columbia and up and down the pacific west coast during the Great Depression. During this period, Weems served a prison term in Canada and Washington state for rolling Johns. Police in many cities on the West coast had a record of her career as a roller, fugitive, and formerly imprisoned woman. The concluding chapters uses arrest records to map and illuminate the impact of policing and vagrancy laws on the forced and unforced migrations of Black itinerant sex workers like Nettie Weems.
Sankofa, jub, ""All Kinds of Money": Black Women on the Moving and the Policing of Urban Alley Workers, 1900-1935" (2022). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 654.