Hannah's Story: Gender Subversion in Jim Crow Era Loudoun County

Original photo of Hannah Nokes in Rural Electrification News

A photo of Hannah Nokes smiling while working as a laundress outside her home at 1500 Dranesville Road, Herndon, VA 20170. Source: Rural Electrification News (1935). 

Learning about Black geographic theories this semester led me to ask questions about occurrences of Black, trans experiences within Northern Virginia's historical archive. Coupling that with the rampant transphobia in the United States, I was able to find a Black, trans woman named Hannah Nokes. The following pages outline a small portion of her story that include a murder trial, communal bonds she had, and Scholars whose Black geographic theories shaped my project are McKittrick, Smith, Fuentes, and King. Each of their theories and scholarship shed light on my research into Black transness in Northern Virginia. McKittrick, when discussing the relationship between Blackness and geography, states that it “allows us to engage with a narrative that locates and draws on black histories and black subjects in order to make visible social lives which are often displaced, rendered geographic” (x). This argument is foundational to my research because of the connections that can be made between the past and today with how Black, trans women are treated in this white supremacist country. The Human Rights Campaign has tracked “at least 302 violent deaths of transgender and gender-nonconforming people since the LGBTQ advocacy organization began tracking such fatalities in 2013” with over half of those murdered in 2022 being Black (Schoenbaum). The act of searching the historical narrative for stories of Black, trans women was an incredibly hard task. Fuentes, researching stories of fugitive enslaved women, argues that deconstructing prominent historical narratives “exposes the power of certain narratives to obscure the politics of representing success, the violence fundamental to slavery, and the lives relegated to historical anonymity” (47). Historical anonymity is the perfect way to describe Hannah's story and its journey through the historical archive.   Her Blackness, gender, and class during the Jim Crow Era. during this time reminded me of King’s Black Shoals. King argues that “Black thought, Black study, Black aesthetics, and Black expression function as a shoal that interrupts the course and momentum of the flow of critical theories about genocide, slavery, and humanity in the Western Hemisphere” (xv).

In a historical narrative dominated by white supremacist and colonial logics, Hannah’s story is overlooked. For King, the shoal “functions as a space of liminality, indeterminacy, and location of suture between two hermeneutical frames that have conventionally been sealed off from each other” (4). In searching for more of Hannah’s story, I found that King’s argument was emphasized because of Hannah’s appearance in the historical narrative, her family’s geographic history in Loudoun County, Virginia, and her relationship with her mother. In this same vein of historical anonymity, I am reminded of Clint Smith’s work in How the Word is Passed (2021).  He states “The Lost Cause was not an accident. It was not a mistake that history stumbled into. It was a deliberate, multifaceted, multi-field effort predicated on both misremembering and obfuscating what the Confederacy stood for, and the role that slavery played in shaping this country” (147). This misremembering of history erases Black experiences and stories. We can see this at play in how secondary sources do not mention Hannah when discussing a landmark court case where she was a witness. 

Furthermore, the dehumanizing ways Hannah was depicted in most primary source newspaper articles about this court case serve as ways to discredit her as a witness and erase her from the narrative. The courtroom takes me back to McKittrick when she states “…while the authenticity of stories about the Green Hill auction block have ‘not been documented,’ seeing and engaging with geographies of captivity, human sale, and dehumanization render the auction block much more than a well-constructed stone object” (66). This theory, along with Hannah’s misgendering in newspapers and the response to her being a witness, allows us to see the courtroom as a site of dehumanization. Hannah’s not being discussed in secondary sources about the court case showcase how her story has been, as McKittrick states, displaced (x) and forgotten among other historical occurrences.

By Leeana Norman

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