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Shelia Washington (1960–2021), museum founder who helped exonerate the Scottsboro Boys

by Linnea Crowther

Shelia Washington was instrumental in the exoneration of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in a famous 1935 case.

Seeing justice through

The Scottsboro Boys – Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Andy Wright, Roy Wright, Olin Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, and Eugene Williams – were riding on a freight train through Tennessee when a white mob tried to force them from the train and later accused them of raping two white women. When their case was heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, eight of the young men were convicted and sentenced to death. Their case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and though the death sentences were overturned, some of the young men served prison sentences. The story of the Scottsboro Boys became one of the catalysts of the civil rights movement.

Washington learned of their story years later, as a young woman, and she became passionately determined to help find justice for them. In 2010, after years of work, she founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro, now a stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. And Washington worked with lawyers and legislators to seek exoneration for the nine, which go beyond pardons to establish the innocence of the exonerated. After years of work, Washington secured exonerations for all nine of the Scottsboro Boys in the Alabama legislature, signed into law by the governor. The exonerations were posthumous, as the last of the nine died in 1989.

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Notable quote

“I realized the state of Alabama had dug a hole so deep that they were too embarrassed to say, ‘We made a mistake.’ Instead, they held on to these boys’ lives until they almost just killed them, and squeezed the life out of them in prison. ” —from a 2020 interview for It Is Written

Tributes to Shelia Washington

Full obituary: The New York Times

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