“Baits Alligators with Pickaninnies,” reads a Washington Times headline on June 3, 1908. The article continues, “Zoo Specimens Coaxed to Summer Quarters by Plump Little Africans.”
The New York Zoological Gardens’ zookeeper sent two black children into an enclosure that housed more than 25 crocodiles and alligators. The children were chased by the hungry reptiles, entertaining zoo patrons while leading the alligators and crocodiles out of the reptile house, where they spent the winter, into a tank where they could be viewed during the summer.
According to the newspaper article, “two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house.” The zookeeper “pressed them into service.” He believed that alligators and crocodiles had an “epicurean fondness for the black man.” He also believed, along with all the people who allowed it to happen, that the lives of those sons were nearly valueless. There is no mention of punishment for the zookeeper in the 166-word article. It offers not one adjective that would imply that the actions of the zookeeper were despicable, unthinkable, or even reckless.
Was using black children as gator bait unacceptable? No. Unbelievably no.
The idea that black children are acceptable gator bait was not born in the head of one zookeeper, it was a practice in the American Everglades that inspired lore and occasioned memorabilia.
In 1923, Time magazine reported that “colored babies were being used for alligator bait” in Chipley, Florida. “The infants are allowed to play in the shallow water while expert riflemen watch from concealment nearby. When a saurian approaches this prey, he is shot by the riflemen.”
This tactic was more humane than the one described in a Miami New Timesarticle. Alligator hunters would sit crying black babies who were too young to walk at the water’s edge. With rope around their necks and waists, the babies would splash and cry until a crocodile snapped on one of them. The hunters would kill the alligator only after the baby was in its jaws, trading one child’s life for one alligator’s skin. They made postcards, pictures and trinkets to commemorate the practice.
In October 1919, The Richmond Times Dispatch printed what appears to have been a joke titled, “Game Protection.” It reads, “We understand the Florida authorities are going to prohibit the use of live pickaninnies as alligator bait. They say they’ve got to do something to check the rapid disappearance of the alligator through indigestion.”
A Minnesota paper, The New Ulm Review, printed an article in January 1922 previewing the attractions at the Brown County Fair. In the section about fireworks, the article boasted that “there will also be a big colored alligator pursuing a fleeing pickaninny, and many other beautiful designs.”
In October 1902, The St. Louis Republic described all of the floats in the city’s Veiled Prophet Parade. A secret society founded by a former Confederate soldier, the Veiled Prophet Organization held a parade to tell the history of the Louisiana Purchase. Float No. 15 was called “Plantation Life in Louisiana.” It displayed a “monstrous alligator swallowing a fat pickaninny.”
Some believe the abundance of memorabilia, jokes and celebrations to be inspired by fiction, not actual events. But it almost doesn’t matter. These events are but a droplet in the swamp that is the Maafa. Derived from the Swahili term meaning “great disaster,” in English Maafa has come to represent a history of offenses and ongoing effects of horrors inflicted on African people. Beginning with the transporting of Africans to America to enslave them, the American Maafa is rife with dehumanizing violence.
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