Sheila Washington, who founded an Alabama museum dedicated to the memory of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young Black men unjustly convicted of crimes in the 1930s, and who then led efforts to clear their names, died Jan. 29 at a hospital in Huntsville, Ala. She was 61.
The cause was a heart attack, said Loretta Tolliver, a board member of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.
Washington, a native of Scottsboro in northeastern Alabama, had never heard of the Scottsboro Boys or the notorious miscarriage of justice that befell them until she was 17, when she found a book hidden under a mattress at her home.
Washington made it her lifelong mission to obtain posthumous justice for the nine young Black men who had been accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. Through multiple trials, two of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the plight of the Scottsboro Boys became one of the country's first major civil rights cases.
The book that Washington discovered under the mattress was "Scottsboro Boy," a 1950 memoir by Haywood Patterson, who was convicted four times by all-white juries and sentenced to death three times.
Besides Patterson, the eight other Scottsboro Boys were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams and brothers Andrew and Roy Wright. They ranged in age from 13 to 19.
None was from Alabama, and only four of them knew one another when they hopped a freight train on March 25, 1931, seeking to reach Memphis or other large cities to look for work during the Great Depression.
On the train, they and a few other Black men encountered 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 told authorities they had been attacked by the Black group.
A posse of white vigilantes and police officers met the train at its next stop, a tiny town called Paint Rock, Ala.
They were taken to the county jail in Scottsboro, which then had a population of 2,300. The National Guard had to be called out to prevent a white mob from lynching the young inmates.
Within 15 days, all nine of the Scottsboro Boys were convicted of rape, and eight were sentenced to die in the electric chair. The youngest defendant, Roy Wright, escaped that fate by a single juror's objection.
In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they did not receive adequate legal counsel in their original trials,
creating a major legal precedent.
A year later, new trials were held in Decatur, Ala., about 60 miles from Scottsboro, with intense media coverage and a skilled defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz. One of the women who had accused the young men of rape, Ruby Bates, recanted her story.
Nonetheless, Patterson was convicted and sentenced to death a second time.
Later court proceedings dragged on for years. By the end of the 1930s, charges were dropped against four of the Scottsboro Boys; four were convicted of rape; and one was convicted of assaulting a deputy with a knife. In 1976, Alabama Gov. George Wallace pardoned Norris, who died in 1989 and was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys.
In 2010, after years of fundraising and acquiring artifacts, Washington opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in a building that had once been an African American church.
But that was not the end of her efforts. Three of the Scottsboro Boys had never been pardoned, after spending years in prison.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the bill granting the pardons at the Scottsboro Boys Museum.
"I believe the boys can rest now," Washington said.