Sheila Washington was cleaning her parents’ room at their home in Scottsboro, Alabama in the 1970s when she discovered a paperback book hidden in a pillowcase under the bed.
The book, “Scottsboro Boy” (1950), was a heartbreaking memoir by Haywood Patterson, written with reporter Earl Conrad, on Mr. Patterson’s experience as one of nine black youths who were falsely accused of having raped two white women in 1931 in a notorious miscarriage of justice in the Jim Crow South, which sparked an international outcry at the time.
Ms. Washington, then 17, started reading the book, but her stepfather, who owned it, took it away, saying it was too horrible for the kids. Over time, she read it and the story burned her soul, she said. She vowed to do something about it.
“I said, ‘Someday when I’m older I’m going to find a place and honor the Scottsboro Boys and put this book on a table and burn a candle in their memory,’ ‘she told NPR in 2020.
It took her decades, but she achieved her goal, and more. She became the catalyst for the establishment of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and went on to win something few thought possible – not only posthumous pardons for the accused, but full exonerations for the history books as well.
Ms Washington was 61 when she died Jan. 29 in a Huntsville hospital. Loretta Tolliver, a cousin and member of the museum’s board, said the cause was a heart attack.
Ms. Washington saw that the story of the Scottsboro Boys helped fuel the civil rights movement decades later, and she was determined to see her recognized.
The nine young men, all under the age of 20, were boarding a Southern Railroad freight train in March 1931, most looking for work in the depths of the Depression and most not knowing each other when they left. brawled with white hoboes who had jumped the same train.
Police arrested the black youth on a minor charge. But when MPs questioned two white women who were on the train, the women accused the boys of raping them. Accounts differ, but the women faced their own accusations of vagrancy and illegal sexual activity stemming from an unrelated incident and apparently thought that by accusing the boys they might avoid being arrested themselves.
The defendants were all tried quickly in separate trials in Scottsboro, a small town on the shores of Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama, and garnered widespread attention; According to her account, Harper Lee later drew inspiration from the case as the inspiration for “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
All-white juries in Scottsboro sentenced each of the youths, and all but the youngest of the nine were sentenced to death. After appeals, the United States Supreme Court overturned the convictions, leading to more appeals, trials and new trials. Along the way, one of the white women, Ruby Bates, retracted her story, but the defendants remained behind bars.
These cases led to two landmark Supreme Court civil rights judgments – one that opened the door for African Americans to serve on juries, the other ensuring that defendants had the right to adequate legal representation.
Sentences were eventually reduced or dropped entirely, and the accused were released; most of them had been incarcerated from time to time for several years. But they have not been declared innocent and their names have not been erased.
Ms. Washington and others spent years planning how to honor them and decided the best way to tell their story would be through a museum. But they faced strong objections.
“A lot of people didn’t want Scottsboro to be remembered for this tragedy, both in black and white communities, but especially in white communities,” Ms. Tolliver said in an interview. “He tore off the scab from the wound.”
Opponents included a former Scottsboro mayor, who told Ms Washington to stop planning.
“He said, ‘Wait until some of the old people die,’ Ms. Tolliver said. “And she said, ‘Then we’ll die. History dies if we don’t tell it. ”
Over time enough people came on board, including descendants of some who had played central roles in the affair, and the museum began to take shape, in an old church near the train tracks. He recreated the courtroom where the trials took place.
People began to bring artifacts and memorabilia for the exhibits, including the chair on which witnesses had testified. A display case containing the book that inspired Ms. Washington was in the spotlight.
The museum (currently under renovation), opened in 2010 and has been placed on the United States Civil Rights Trail.
Ms Washington’s next goal was to erase the names of the Scottsboro Boys, the last of which, Clarence Norris, died in 1989 at age 76. The museum became the headquarters from which she led this campaign.
With the help of a legal team from the University of Alabama and others, she wanted to go beyond obtaining pardons, which forgive an offense; she asked for exemptions, which are declarations of innocence.
Ms Washington was constantly on the phone with lawmakers, lawyers, community leaders and academics, and kept in touch with all key players.
“She involved people in a very strategic way,” Ellen Griffith Spears, an American studies researcher at the University of Alabama who was part of the campaign, said in a telephone interview.
“And she did it against considerable local opposition and against quite a bit of repression from the people of Scottsboro who did not want to talk about the past,” she added. “Everyone was skeptical except Sheila. She just kept walking.
In 2013, the Alabama Legislature unanimously voted to pave the way for the state parole board to pardon Scottsboro defendants and for the governor to exonerate them. Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the measures into law in 2013, during a ceremony at the museum.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mr. Bentley said at the time. “But it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
More than 80 years after their arrests, the people whose names were cleared were Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charles Weems and Roy Wright.
Sheila Edwonna Branford was born January 27, 1960 in Scottsboro to Eugene Branford and Betty (Johnson) Branford; her parents soon divorced. His mother, who became a minister, married James Nicholson, an elder of their church.
After graduating from Scottsboro High School in 1978, she worked at Scottsboro City Hall for 22 years, where she served as secretary to the mayor. She also worked for the Scottsboro Parks and Recreation Department, where she established a youth center; it is now a boys and girls club and activity center with after-school programs.
She married Ferry Washington, a former policeman and factory worker; The marriage ended in divorce. Mrs. Washington is survived by one son, Marques; one daughter, Emily Dowdy; four grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; and six sisters.
Ms. Washington continued to bring school groups and others to the museum, educating new generations about the Scottsboro Boys. And last summer, she backed a group that wanted to stage a Black Lives Matter protest in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd last year in Minnesota.
“Sheila said, ‘We have to do this,'” Dr Spears recalled of the march, which was peaceful. “She said, ‘This is Scottsboro, and it’s really important that we have this walk here.’ She understood the significance of Scottsboro’s history in a very deep way.