Sheila Washington, founding father of Alabama civil rights museum, dies at 61

Ms. Washington, a native of Scottsboro, northeast Alabama, had never heard of the Scottsboro Boys or the infamous miscarriage of justice until she was 17 when she found a book hidden under a mattress in her home.

“You don’t have to know,” said her stepfather. “Just keep silent about it now.”

Instead, Ms. Washington made it a lifelong task to provide posthumous justice to the nine young black men accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931, and the Scottsboro Boys became one of the first major civil rights cases in the country. Her story has been shown in feature films, documentaries and a Broadway musical, and helped shape the plot of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

The book Ms. Washington discovered under the mattress was Scottsboro Boy, a 1950 Haywood Patterson treatise that was convicted four times by all-white juries and sentenced to death three times.

“It gave me a passion,” Ms. Washington told the Guardian in 2013, “that one day I would hold this book, light a candle, and fix things for the Scottsboro Boys.”

In addition to Patterson, the eight other Scottsboro Boys were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams and the brothers Andrew and Roy Wright. They were between 13 and 19 years old.

None were from Alabama, and only four of them knew each other when they boarded a freight train on March 25, 1931 to reach Memphis or other major cities and look for work during the Great Depression.

On the train, she and several other black men met several white men who were also stowaways, and the two groups got into a fight. As the train passed through Scottsboro, some of the white men got off and informed the authorities that they had been attacked by the black group.

A group of white vigilantes and police officers hit the train at its next stop, a tiny town called Paint Rock, Ala. The nine black teenagers were charged first with assault and later on rape after two young white women announced on the train that it was assaulted.

They were taken to Scottsboro County Jail, which then had 2,300 residents. The National Guard had to be called in to prevent a white mob from lynching the young inmates.

Within 15 days, all nine Scottsboro Boys were convicted of rape and eight were sentenced to death in the electric chair. The youngest defendant, Roy Wright, escaped that fate through an appeal from a single juror.

Various groups concerned about racial justice, including the NAACP, the Communist Party, and the American Civil Liberties Union, gathered around the Scottsboro Boys and defended themselves. In 1932, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had not received adequate legal assistance in their original trials, which set a major precedent.

A year later, new trials with heavy media coverage and a seasoned defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, took place in Decatur, Ala., About 60 miles from Scottsboro. One of the women who accused the young men of rape, Ruby Bates, recanted her story.

Even so, Patterson was convicted a second time and sentenced to death. Judge James E. Horton denied the jury’s verdict and called off the other trials. He found that the defendants could not get justice in the blazing atmosphere in northern Alabama.

Later legal proceedings dragged on for years. Another case, Norris v Alabama, reached the Supreme Court, leading to a landmark 1935 ruling that black defendants would not receive equal protection under the law if black citizens were banned from serving on juries.

Charges against four of the Scottsboro Boys were dropped in the late 1930s; four were convicted of rape; and one was convicted of attacking an MP with a knife. In 1976, Alabama Governor George Wallace pardoned Norris, who died in 1989 and was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys.

Ms. Washington knew nothing of this story growing up in Scottsboro.

“The whites said they should let this dead dog sleep,” she told the Huntsville Times in 2011.

From the early 1990s, she tried to commemorate the Scottsboro Boys and get their hometown to grapple with their past.

“Sheila has had some headwinds and worse in Scottsboro,” said John Allison, an Alabama archivist who worked with Ms. Washington, in an interview. “She was driven. She knew this was an important part of this country’s civil rights history. “

But that was not the end of their efforts. Three of the Scottsboro Boys – Patterson, Weems and Andy Wright – had never been pardoned after years in prison.

“They became my brothers and I had to do justice for them,” Ms. Washington said in 2013. “It was not fair that the others were free and these three were undone.”

Since posthumous pardons could not be granted in the state, legislative measures were necessary. Faculty members at the University of Alabama helped with the research, and Ms. Washington spoke to lawmakers.

Both houses of the state parliament unanimously passed two bills in 2013: one to enable the pardon and one to grant full discharge to the three Scottsboro Boys whose cases were unsolved.

Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley (R) signed the pardon bill at the Scottsboro Boys Museum.

“I think the boys can rest now,” Ms. Washington said.

Sheila Edwonna Branford was born on January 27, 1960 in Scottsboro. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother was a pastor, her stepfather a church elder.

Ms. Washington worked for the Scottsboro municipal government for more than 20 years, first as the mayor’s secretary and later in the parks and recreation division.

Her marriage to Ferry Washington ended in divorce. Survivors are two children; two sisters; a half sister; three stepsisters; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In the days before her death, Ms. Washington had helped move artifacts in preparation for a renovation of the museum, which she described as a “Place of Healing and Restoration.”

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