It has been pretty well documented recently that, during slavery and into the 20th Century, black babies were used as alligator bait in North and Central Florida.The problem with that claim? We have staged photographs, drawings, and even songs about "gator babies", but no evidence that any child was ever used as live bait for alligators.
The strongest claim for any truth to "gator bait baby" stories is a rumor that circulated in 1923 which was covered by several papers. Time mentioned it in Oct. 15, 1923:
From Chipley, Fla., it was reported that colored babies were being used for alligator bait. ” The infants are allowed to play in shallow water while expert riflemen watch from concealment nearby. When a saurian approaches his prey, he is shot by the riflemen.”
The Louisville Herald: ” Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their target ”
The price reported as being paid colored mothers for the services of their babies as bait was ” $2.00 a hunt.”Time's Miscellany column of Nov. 12, 1923 has a follow-up:
On behalf of the town of Chipley, Fla., the Orange County Chamber of Commerce branded as ” a silly lie, false and absurd,” the story (broadcasted a month ago through the press of the nation) that colored babies were being used at Chipley for alligator bait. In its issue for Oct. 15, TIME printed the fact that the report had been circulated, but in no wise vouched for its authenticity.To believe the story, you have to believe that black mothers would risk their children's lives for $2, and you have to ignore the fact that none of the accounts of the stories include any verifiable details besides the mention of Chipley.
We have three strong reasons to doubt all stories of gator bait babies.
The first is the lack of evidence. The horrors of US slavery and the Jim Crow era were meticulously documented by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, the students and faculty of the Tuskegee Institute, and countless others. Thanks to their work, the History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names. Newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier told the stories of many black women who were raped by white men.* Justice in the segregated South was horribly unequal, but it was not entirely non-existent. Crimes by white people against black people were reported in the South—in the Atlanta Independent on October 11, 1923, right next to an article titled "Babies Used as Alligator Bait In State of Florida" is a story titled "White Molests Colored Girls", which names a white man who was arrested for the offense.
Yet no one can say when any black baby was ever used as alligator bait. No one can name a mother whose child was used or a witness who saw a baby being used or a hunter who bragged about using a baby as bait.
The stories of gator bait babies have few details because they need none. They serve a simple function. For racists, they're sick jokes. For anti-racists, they're visceral examples of the depravity of slavery and Jim Crow.
The second reason to doubt gator bait baby stories: they make no sense. Slavery was a business, and slaves were expensive. From Measuring Worth - Measuring the Value of a Slave:
Using these measures, the value in 2011 of $400 in 1850 (the average price of a slave that year) ranges from $12,000 to $176,000.No alligator was worth a slave. People who wanted to use live alligator bait would trap a wild creature like a muskrat for free. Using a slave baby makes less sense than using a foal or a calf today—business people don't throw away money casually.
Moreover, a dead animal is more effective than live bait because the smell attracts alligators. In a discussion at Alligator bait | Louisiana Trappers & Alligator Hunters Forum, one hunter advised,
If your stomach is tough enough, 3 day old dead chickens from the chicken houses. They are a little rank, but will call in the gators.The third reason to doubt the stories: The tone of the articles suggest the stories were tall tales. A 1923 Oakland Tribune article by T. W. Villiers has a joking style and includes details like this:
...black babies, in the estimation of the alligators, are far more refreshing, as it were, than white ones.No one did a taste test with white and black babies to see which the alligators preferred. Villiers was simply indulging in racist humor.
Now, I grant that it is possible the gator bait stories have an element of fact that inspired the folklore; never underestimate human cruelty. But I haven't been able to find any evidence that black babies were ever used as gator bait. The stories served a different function than history: they were a way for racist whites to laugh at the idea black babies were so worthless their own mothers would rent them as bait for $2.
* See Jim Crow: Rape, Trauma, and Segregation Stress Syndrome or Alabama may finally acknowledge Jim Crow era rape of Recy Taylor or The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum. The extensive documentation on rape during the Jim Crow era let Estelle B. Freedman write in Redefining Rape that “White-on-black assaults reported in the Chicago Defender increased from one-fourth to one-third of sampled rape stories between the 1920s and 1940s.”
Earlier: No Vanilla Ice Cream for Negroes? History versus Folklore #1
The most objective accounts of the history of gator bait baby stories I've found are The Coon Caricature: Coons as Alligator Bait and Media Assassin: Gator Aid. They make no claims about the origin of the stories; they simply describe them and include many examples, beginning in the 1890s, when the first stories of gator bait babies may have appeared.
Jim Crow Museum: Question of the Month: Alligator Bait is interesting and well-documented, though the writer assumes the examples have a basis in fact. Also recommended there: Jim Crow Museum: Question of the Month: Human Zoos tells about the African Dodger carnival event, also known as "Hit the Coon".
ETA: Were black children actually used as alligator bait in the South? : AskHistorians