Honoring and making history: the Scottsboro Boys Museum and mural

Scottsboro Boys Museum Mural By Don Howard
The upcoming Scottsboro Boys mural coming to Downtown Scottsboro. Photo via Don Howard and Main Street Scottsboro

In 1931, the Scottsboro boys trial made national news, and that history and legacy have remained with Scottsboro. Keep reading to see how the City of Scottsboro has memorialized the story of those nine young men with the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and an upcoming mural from artist Don Howard.

As a Scottsboro native, I have a fierce, but often critical, love for my hometown. It’s beauty is inpsiring, but its history is a force we must reckon with. I am thrilled that the Museum and Howard’s mural will help advance the conversation about Scottsboro’s civil rights history and bring the story the attention it deserves.

The Scottsboro Boys

Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, And Roy Wright In Nashville With Their Lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz. Photo via Scottsboro Boys Museum’s Website

If you’re rusty on your Alabama history, or if this is the first time you’re hearing about the Scottsboro Boys (sometimes called the Scottsboro Nine), I’ve got a little refresher for you.

90 years ago, the Scottsboro Boys story made national headlines, bringing reporters from across the US to North Alabama for the trial. The miscarriage of justice forever altered the lives of Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, and Roy Wright. The case also changed the course of the US justice system, helping to institutionalize the right to legal counsel.

According to the Scottsboro Boys Museum:

“In 1931 nine Black youths between the ages of 13 to 19 were pulled from a train, arrested and taken to nearby Scottsboro, Alabama, where they were jailed, tried and declared guilty of raping two white women — a crime that never occurred. An all-white, male jury quickly sentenced eight to death. A long-term and ultimately successful campaign to save the youths’ lives and, in time, exonerate them led to one of the most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history.”

The Scottsboro Boys Museum website

Read the full history of the train ride, trial, and decades-long aftermath here on the museum’s website.

An interesting fact about the Scottsboro Boys: their trial is said to be the inspiration for the trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The story of the nine young men has also inspired music, an off-Broadway musical, poetry, and more around the country.

The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center

On the site of the first African American church in Jackson County and sitting inside the former Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church on West Willow Street, the Scottsboro Boys Museum was a 17-year effort by Scottsboro native Shelia Washington. The Museum formally opened in February 2010.

Exhibits in the museum feature locally-compiled scrapbooks and an impressive collection of memorabilia started ten years prior to the opening by Washington. Some particularly interesting pieces include a table from the young men’s cell in the Jackson County Jail, a jury chair from the trial, stamps used to raise money for their defense, and 1930’s newspapers from around the country that reported on the story.

The museum is open the second and third Saturdays of each month, and by appointment.

Shelia Washington, champion of the Scottsboro Boys and museum founder

The Museum’s founder, director, and curator Shelia Washington has a large part to play in this story. Her 17-year effort to elevate the emphasis that the City of Scottsboro places on its history has brought the world a place to immerse itself in the story of the nine young men riding that train from Chattanooga.

Sadly, Washington passed away earlier this month. Along with founding the museum, she established the Scottsboro Multicultural Foundation and Beyond the Break ministry, as well as managing the Ben Samford Outreach Center. Her legacy will be a long-lasting one, which you can read more about in this article from NPR following her passing.

Shelia Washington discussing the founding of the Scottsboro Boys Museum. Video via ImpactAlabama1 on YouTube

While Washington is unfortunately no longer with us, check out this video of her speaking about the founding of the museum.

The Scottsboro Boys Commemorative Mural

Scottsboro Boys Mural By Don Howard
The forthcoming mural honoring the Scottsboro Boys and the legacy they left on Alabama by Don Howard. Photo via Don Howard and Main Street Scottsboro

Today, Scottsboro is taking another step towards commemorating its history as artist Don Howard prepares a new mural telling the story of the Scottsboro Boys. Howard is a Huntsville-based artist who has a deep reverence for this project, remarking that he got chills when asked to create this mural.

See what Howard says about his forthcoming artwork and the mark it will leave:

“I knew the story about the Scottsboro Boys when I was growing up, and it just kind of hurt me. I first heard it when I was 14, and that was the age of some of the boys.

I think that because of the circumstances, because of where it happened, because this is a small town, if they said nothing, things would still go on the same way as they always have. For this small city to say, ‘hey look we’re going to try to right a historical wrong or at least talk about,’ it’s an amazing thing. It’s not only going to have an effect on North Alabama, but on the whole state.”

Artist Don Howard

The mural began as part of a revitalization effort of Downtown Scottsboro, spearheaded by Main Street Scottsboro. The final piece will be revealed soon (pending good weather) on Peachtree Street on the square in Scottsboro.

Find the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center at their website and on Facebook, and check out Don Howard’s website for more of his work.

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Claire Hancock
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