Matt Ingram Case: ‘Reckless Eyeballing’ (1951)

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In 1951 Matt Ingram was accused of “reckless eyeballing,” (the improper looking at a white person, with sexual intent) in North Carolina. Ingram was one of the last African-Americans convicted under this law. Ingram was a tenant farmer leaving in Yanceyville, North Carolina and had nine children with his wife.

17-year-old Willa Jean Bosewell testified in court that her neighbor, Ingram frightened her when he looked at her from a distance of approx. 75 feet away. The alleged incident caused the community to be outraged and prosecutors demanded that Ingram be convicted of assault with the intent to rape which was later reduced to an assault on a female by the judge.

Ingram was defended by attorney Ernest Frederick Upchurch. At the appeal in Superior Court, the judge told the jury that Ingram was guilty if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner, that is, in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner…he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger”

The all-white jury returned a conviction, leading to a six-month sentence of labor on the roads, suspended for five years.

The NAACP got involved and Black newspapers covered the case.  Due to the pressure put on the state supreme court vacated the conviction because: “it cannot be said that a pedestrian may be assaulted by a look, however frightening, from a person riding in an automobile some distance away. He may have looked with lustful eyes but there was the absence of any overt act.” Unfortunately, Ingram  would spend over two years of his life in prison awaiting three trials that took two years too long to resolve.

Sources:

Berry, M. F. (n.d.). “Reckless Eyeballing”: The Matt Ingram Case and the Denial of African American Sexual Freedom. Uchicago.edu. Retrieved February 28, 2021, from https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/JAAHv93n2p223.

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