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Scottsboro, AL: a quiet town; a dark past..

October 26, 2018

Many times during our travels Lorraine and I actively seek out well known historical landmarks. We've visited many civil war battlefields, museums, a dozen state capitols, and numerous civil rights monuments. But sometimes it's the less well known (or less promoted) sites that we haphazardly stumble upon that have the greatest impact on us. And the significance of the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama is just such a case.

 

Each time we move our RV to a new location, our first mission is to resupply our sundries. Two things we have found in close proximity to almost every campground we've stayed at is a Walmart and a Taco Bell (the first, I understand. The second, I don't).

 

From our campground in Langston Alabama, the nearest Walmart was a short drive away in a place named Scottsboro. Although technically a city, it has the warmth and feel of a small town. It  is uniquely situated about 30 miles from both Tennessee and Georgia, and 45 miles from Huntsville.

 

 First off, the scenery in this area is incredible.

 

 

 

 

Secondly, we found downtown Scottsboro to be a exceedingly charming. Colorful brick buildings, built in the late 1800-early 1900's, line the perimeter and at its heart sits the majestic County Courthouse built in 1912.

 Here are some shots of the town:

 

 

 

(W.H. Payne’s Soda Shop — an old soda fountain that’s been in business since 1869!)

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A BRIEF HISTORICAL INTERLUDE: The town was founded in the 1850's and named after the owner of the local grist mill, Robert Thomas Scott. He was a very successful businessman ad donated the land that the court house (pictured above) now sits on.

 

Sadly, Mr. Scott died a rather ignominious death in 1863 (at the age of  62) when "Yankee invad-ah's" swept through the area. They burned his home and forced him to pull a supply wagon into town, causing him to die of heat exhaustion.

 

If that wasn't sad enough, Robert and his wife Elizabeth, had 12 children. Seven of which died before reaching the age of 5!

 

 

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We whittled away quite a few pleasant hours strolling the tree-lined streets, sipping coffee and chatting with friendly shop-owners and other locals along our way.

 

I even had a pleasant chat with this nice man (with questionable fashion sense- but who am I to judge) who saw me looking at a street map. He was puzzled as to the fastest way out of town. With a quick glance at my map, I was able to point him in the right direction. Always glad to lend a helping hand to a soul in need!

 

(but seriously, this friendly gentleman was on work release and scheduled to be paroled within the upcoming month. We struck up a conversation and I asked him if I could snap a shot of the two of us. He agreed, I grabbed a passerby and the rest is history)

 

***UNEARTHING SCOTTSBORO'S DARK PAST:***

 

After returning home, I began to do some preparatory work for this blog post. For me, this is the most enjoyable part of blogging. It gives me the opportunity to learn more about the fabric of the community. Each town has its own unique story. It's own unique flavor. And it's my job, to suss that out.

 

A LITTLE BACKSTORY:

Back when we were visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I vividly remember seeing this photo:

 

While I don't know who snapped this picture, the haunting looks on the faces of the subjects and the condition of their surroundings leaves little need for further narrative. It speaks of: anguish, brutality, oppression, racism, injustice, heartbreak, hopelessness and so forth. From the looks of it, things aren't going to end well for these young men.

 

Because of the overwhelming amount of information we took in that day in Memphis, the specifics behind this photo had faded from my memory.

 

But then I came across this random photo as I was researching Scottsboro:

The same forlorn faces I saw 250 miles ago. What do these boys have to do with this quiet little borough tucked away in the hills of Alabama?

 

I came to discover that Scottboro, and the events that occurred here, quite possibly ignited the entire modern day civil rights movement! And there is little mention of it in the town.

 

The story begins during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce.

 

"Hoboing" as it came to be known, became the lifestyle of a whole sub-culture of unemployed men and women who traveled the country by rail car in search for work.

 

..And thus begins the story of the Scottsboro Boys.

 

It all began on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Memphis by way of Alabama on the chilly evening of March 25, 1931. Nobody is really sure how it started, but a fight broke out in a rail car between a group of white and black youths. The black youths ended up throwing most of the whites off the train. The expulsed white boys complained to a station manager who phoned the next station along the train's path and had the sheriff arrest every black man aboard that train car.

 

When the train pulled into the station at Paint Rock, Alabama, a posse was waiting..

 

The sheriff pulled everybody out of the car which included nine young African American men (ranging in age from 13-20) and three Caucasians. He was shocked to find two of the Caucasians were white women dressed in overalls and men's caps: Ruby Bates (17) and Victoria Price (21).

 

                (this photo was taken the day after the incident)

 

The sheriff became suspicious, as only prostitutes would be hoboing. It now looked as if Price and Bates would be arrested under the Mann Act, a federal law which forbade interstate prostitution. As soon as the sheriff began questioning Price, she began accusing the black youth of rape.

 

As soon as the accusation was made, the nine teenagers—Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson and Eugene Williams—were arrested and transferred to the local county seat in Scottsboro, Alabama.

 

                                            **********

“I knew if a white woman accused a black man of rape, he was as good as dead… All I could think was I was going to die for something that I had not done.”
– Clarence Norris (one of the Scottsboro Boys)

                                           **********

As you can imagine, with the volatility of racial tensions in that era, a charge of rape was highly inflammatory. An angry white mob was roused and immediately surrounded the jail. Nooses were fashioned. Pounding on the prison door, the mob demanded the sheriff give them the black youths. This led the sheriff to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent a lynching.

 


The nine black youth and two ladies were taken to the jail in the county seat of Scottsboro, Alabama. Doctors were summons to examine both women. According to the doctors, neither woman seemed upset or traumatized, and Price even joked and chatted with them. Vaginal swabs revealed semen in both women, but the semen was dead – indicating that sex had occurred at least 12 to 24 hours earlier (not just a few hours earlier, as the women claimed). Moreover, neither woman's vagina showed any signs of forced entry, and neither  bore any scratches or bruises which were indicative of rape.

 

Given the lack of material evidence, it became the ladies word against those of the nine young men.

 

The next day, a grand jury was summoned. A local real estate attorney was appointed to represent the black youths. Under the watchful eyes of a vulturesque national press, and a growing, hostile white (southern) mob, the hearing commenced.

 

                                           **********

"I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is a murderer; he is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer... I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit.... Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner." - Judge James E. Horton (judge at their second trial)

                                           **********

As expected, four days later, the grand jury indites the nine men of rape. During the proceeding trial, eight of the nine were sentenced to death (all but the lone 13 year old) by an all-white jury.

 

To make a long, tragic story short, after Ruby Bates recanted her testimony, the case was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court where the executions were stayed. The case  made it's way to the U.S. Supreme Court (twice). Over the next twenty-plus years, there are numerous trials and retrials. Death sentences are reduced to life imprisonments. It wasn't until the 1950's that most of the boys were officially pardoned. They spent a combined total of over 100 years in prison!

 

Sadly, it was until April 19, 2013 that the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, signs legislation officially pardoning and exonerating all nine Scottsboro Boys (all were long dead by then).

 

You can find an interesting chronology of the incidents here.

 

**********************

As Lorraine and I visit one state capitol building after another, the phrase we see most frequently carved above doorways is:

 

               "Where the law ends, tyranny begins. "

 

The case of the Scottsboro Boys shows the effect tyranny has on a law-abiding citizenry. And tyranny always leads to savagery. Based solely on the word of two white women, with no substantiating evidence or credible witnesses, the lives of nine African-American youths (and their families) were destroyed.

 

(P.S.-- It's been interesting listening to the Judge Kavanaugh hearings during the writing of this blog because of the similar parallels in the two situations: one person's word against another; male vs. female; a heinous accusation; lack of credible witnesses; a sensationalizing press; and preconceived prejudices).

 

In human terms, the Scottsboro trials were a horrific tragedy. In legal terms, the case was a gross miscarriage of justice that highlighted the inherent bigotry in our justice system.

 

Fortunately, the trial did bring about two profound and far reaching changes in our legal system. The Supreme Court established two landmark precedents:

(1) A defendant has the right to effective counsel under due process; and

(2) the prohibition of the exclusion of jurors based solely on race.

 

"These two decisions were effectively the first substantive legal efforts undermining the climate of fear and intimidation that reigned over African-Americans in the South --what historian James Goodman simply calls "southern injustice". "

                                 --Scottsboro, A Civil Rights Milestone

 

 

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