May 2, 1959, was a night that was supposed to feel like a dream for Florida A&M student Betty Jean Owens. Her dream night quickly turned into a nightmare and became a rape case that would stain the city of Tallahassee.
Owens and three of her friends had just left campus after attending the Green and Orange ball. They stopped at Jake Gaither Park. Four white males approached them while they were parked.
These four men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – made it their mission to violate a black woman that night. One of the friends testified to “go out and get a nigger girl” and have an “all-night party,” according to Danielle L. McGuire’s, “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle.”
The four men approached the students’ car armed with shotguns and switchblades. They had separated the group and told the two male students who were with Owens to drive off. Without much of a choice, they eventually drove off. That left Owens and her friend Edna Richardson alone with the men.
Richardson was able to break free and run into a nearby park for safety. Unfortunately, this left Owens stuck to face these men by herself. The assailants proceeded to force a sobbing Owens into the backseat of their blue Chevrolet where they drove to the edge of town and raped her seven times.
Owens’ attackers were arrested that same night and confessed in writing to abducting and raping her at gunpoint. With the support of over a thousand FAMU students who petitioned for a speedy and impartial trial, court was in session four days later.
After the men pleaded innocent, a jury trial became mandatory. Statistically, the odds were not in Owens’ favor, especially facing an all-white, all-male jury. Nonetheless, she testified.
Months later, the judge presiding over the case sentenced all four men to life in prison.
It is this story that inspired Owens’ grandson, Amonté L. Martin, to begin his “Letters to Betty” campaign.
The campaign aims to draw a bridge between those who have looked to Owens’ story for inspiration and may not know she’s alive.
Martin says that it wasn’t until he took an African American history class at FAMU that he found out about what happened to his grandmother. “It was this big family secret … (it) gave my life purpose,” Martin said.
Through Letters to Betty, Martin hopes to help anyone who has heard her story. “Too often we hear about these stories and the (victim) has passed away, it’s for people to be able to reach out and contact her,” he said.
Some say Owens’ testimony was a catalyst for the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Martin and the award-winning author Danielle McGuire have combined efforts for this campaign.
McGuire wants Owens to know that her testimony “remains an inspiration to survivors everywhere, especially women of color who are too often silenced, ignored or dismissed.”
Anyone who would like to write a letter to Owens, can send a letter via firstname.lastname@example.org.