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2024–25 Gitenstein-Hart winner will raise historical voices of Black women in new book project

Leigh-Anne Francis
Leigh-Anne Francis

Leigh-Anne Francis, recipient of the 2024-2025 Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize — an award that supports faculty by allowing them to focus more deeply on their scholarly work — will spend her sabbatical year working toward completing her book, Jane Crow (In)Justice: Race, Crime, and Punishment in New York State, 1893–1933.

The Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize was established in 2014 to provide additional financial resources to a faculty member or librarian taking a full-year sabbatical, thereby allowing the awardee to focus more deeply on scholarly work.

Francis’s book analyzes the intersections of gender, race, class, crime, punishment, labor, and community through the lens of Black women’s experiences. Spurred on by her own arrest as a graduate student in 2003, Francis’s research examines the forces that drove the unjust and disproportionately high incarceration rate of Black women in an upstate New York prison at the turn of the century.

“There’s not a lot of attention, historically, to Black women in the prison system,” Francis says. “I’m placing Black women prisoners in a historical context and exploring their full humanity — what can I learn about these women beyond the crimes they committed?”

Francis posits that Black women’s criminal work was a rational, strategic, and valid response to structural racism and economic injustice.

“These were poverty crimes, these were survival crimes,” she says. “You don’t steal food to get rich; you steal food because you need to eat. And the women who were mothers were making a strategic, moral choice not to let their children go hungry or be unhoused.”

Along with poring over newspapers and prison records for details that may shed more light on individual women, Francis aims to dig deeply and find other ways to access and illustrate their humanity.

“I’m trying to do as much work as I can to get at their voices,” she says. “I hope to uncover relevant blues music lyrics of that time period, for example. Most early 1900s Black women blues singers came from poor southern communities, so they have a similar background and life experience as Black women imprisoned in New York.”

Documenting these stories is only one piece of the puzzle for Francis. The other is to provide analyses that support policymakers’ and activists’ work to stem the crisis of incarceration in present-day poor African American communities.

“I chose to teach and be a scholar of history because it can shed light on the present,” she says. “The problem of mass incarceration — and the way it impacts communities of color — isn’t going anywhere, unfortunately.”

Francis is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, jointly appointed with African American studies.

The Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize is made possible through the generosity of former TCNJ president R. Barbara Gitenstein and her husband Don Hart.

Emily W. Dodd ’03