By Curtis Price
Posted February 10, 2021
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.”