By Curtis Price
Posted February 10, 2021
On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.
I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.
Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless, prisoner under their control. I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.
To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.
No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.
A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration? Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.
I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.
It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.
I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.
At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.
I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.
I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.
Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”
At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed. I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.
People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her. Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.
We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.
Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won- the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf. The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)
On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.
On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.
The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.
I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days. Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.
In early February, Shelia Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, suddenly died. We had been friends on FB and I occasionally sent her “Gasoline & Grits” posts concerning North Alabama.
The one time I went to visit the Scottsboro Museum a couple years back, it was closed. I thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that it was a dead project, like so many of those that are driven by a single individual’s commitment and lapse when they no longer commit. But I found out later it was not only open but undergoing renovations.
I hoped to go back this upcoming spring when I moved closer to Scottsboro and meet Shelia but sadly this won’t be. You can contribute to keeping the Museum alive at this GoFundMe link:
The Museum webiste: The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center
Below is an edited tribute written about Shelia from a non-profit she worked at times with.
Tribute to Shelia Washington
in Scottsboro, Alabama. She was strong, determined, and overcame a wealth of obstacles and setbacks to tell the story of a horrific miscarriage of justice that occurred in her hometown. Her inspiring journey spanned more than 30 years, as she worked to create the museum that many in her community didn’t want.
When she was 17, Shelia found a book stored in a pillowcase under her parents’ bed, a discovery that would shape the rest of her life. The book told the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape by two white women in 1931.
Eight of the nine were sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a Scottsboro courthouse, with the youngest receiving life in prison. Even after one of the women admitted to lying about the rape, the boys were convicted again. The case created a national protest and was considered a seminal moment in the birth of the civil rights movement. In Scottsboro, it wasn’t talked about.
A few years after she found the book, Shelia’s brother was murdered in prison, his body filled with many stab wounds. He had been accused of killing a white man. From that point on, Shelia said, she was determined that “one day when I get older, I’m going to found a place and honor the Scottsboro Boys and my brother, and put this book on a table and burn a candle in their memory.” She talked about her effort to create the museum during “Confronting Racism’s Legacy, One Community at a Time,” a webinar organized by Widen the Circle in November.
The Scottsboro Boys case led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions, on the right to adequate council and on jury diversity. None of the boys were executed, but all served at least six years in prison and one as long as 19 years.
Despite strong local opposition, Shelia opened the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center in 2009. The museum was housed in a building that had once been a church and was built by former slaves after the Civil War. Opening the museum was the fulfillment of a lifetime of effort. “If you have a dream, don’t give up on it,” she said, “And at 17 I had a dream that one day I was going to honor those nine Scottsboro boys.”
Many in the Scottsboro community actively opposed her dream. “I even lost my job because of the Scottsboro boys,” she recalled. “I was working at city hall for 22 years….They were going to do a walking trail and I mentioned to [the mayor] ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be good to do something for the Scottsboro boys?’ and he pointed his finger to the tip of my nose and said, ‘You leave a dead dog sleeping and don’t you do anything to resurrect it.’” She added, “If only he could see me now.”
Shelia was a gifted storyteller, and she had a powerful story to tell. The museum included an old church pew that was designated the crying pew. The saga of the Scottsboro boy is so moving that the pew was used frequently.
One day, she said, the grandson of the town’s founder stopped by to tell her he wanted the museum closed. She told him, “Well it’s too late. The story is out there and it’s going to be told.” It turned out he didn’t know the history in detail, and by the time she finished talking to him, she had changed his mind. His family foundation gave the museum a $5,000 donation.
For years, Shelia and others advocated for the state to exonerate the Scottsboro Boys. The governor told her that it had to be done through the state legislature. In 2013, with the help of legislators on both sides of the aisle and the state’s Black Caucus, the legislation was passed. Gov. Robert Bentley traveled to the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center to sign the bill.
Despite its successes, the museum had to get by strictly on donations for its first 10 years. Shelia appealed several times to the city council for a grant, as the council provide to other local museums. Each time she was turned down, and eventually she decided she would not go back. In 2019 the museum received its first government grant, from the Alabama Historical Commission. In 2020, the attitude in Scottsboro had changed enough that the city approached her with a $20,000 grant to help fund a renovation project.
“Perseverance helps. Time helps” she said. “Time brings about change. And I guess they figured we weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t moving or giving up. We kept pushing forward.”