by Jasmine Brianna Ellison
It is 1940 in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a black chauffeur is charged with the rape of a married white woman. The news quickly labeled Joseph Spell as the "Negro chauffeur," "the colored servant," and even "a colored man with a bad hangover." These words incited fear in the white community by painting a vivid picture of blacks as savages on society.
The publicity storm triggered an emergency at the New York headquarters of the NAACP. The organization's initial concern was the tone of the news stories. Roy Wilkins, NAACP assistant secretary, described as the news reports as “highly colored," when he complained in a telegram to the city editor of The Daily News.
Thurgood Marshall the top lawyer in the NAACP organization was on a train to Greenwich two days after the arrest.
Documents in the Yale Library report in 1940, Fairfield County population consisted of only 2.35% black residents. A 1933 Connecticut law banning discrimination in public places was not enforced.
Shut out of factory work and union jobs, thousands of African-Americans in Connecticut were forced to depend on positions in domestic service. John W. Lancaster, the head of the Bridgeport chapter of the NAACP, had graduated from Fordham University. He, too, was a chauffeur.
The graphic coverage of the alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing's account echoed Southern tales of rape that were used for decades to justify lynching. Reports state that during the time Connecticut suburban residents were discharging their help due to their race, regardless of their connection to Spell. Rumors filtered into the NAACP that panic-stricken Westchester families were firing their black servants.
The NAACP sent fundraising letters to its Northern branches from the inception of the case throughout 1941, emphasizing the, " large number of Negro domestics who will be directly affected by this case and will suffer unless we do all in our power to secure justice for Spell."
Joseph Spell was accused, arrested, indicted, judged and juried by white residents- all extremely familiar with the case outside of the court room. However, with the dedication of Marshall, after a twelve hour deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict shortly before midnight: not guilty. He exposed the facts of the case and proved the prejudices imposed on minorities in the justice system.