We’re driving down Route 72 Saturday morning from Huntsville to Scottsboro, a small blue collar city of fourteen thousand that the Tennessee wraps around like a fat brown snake before uncoiling down river. Scottsboro, that Alabama town historically stained with the legacy of the Scottsboro Boys trials, even if many of the later trials took place elsewhere. About two-thirds of the way, we go through Paint Rock, just a blip and a sign on a mostly deserted highway full of farmland, occasionally punctuated by convenience stores, fireworks outlets, and bait-and-tackle shops. And, of course, the small white wooden churches that are rural Alabama’s distinctive landmarks. The air hangs sweet and moist with the smell of fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle. Only later when I get home do I find out Paint Rock, an isolated still all-white country town of under 200, was where the nine were dragged off the train in a near-lynching by a sheriff’s posse. Scottsboro though lies just a few dozen miles away and there, the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal battles are well documented: the repeated trials, death sentences, appeals on top of appeals, going to the Supreme Court twice until all were finally freed, some more than ten years later. Less known were the fates of the men after interest in the case died down and they slid into what Gabriel Garcia Marquez calls “the oblivion of everyday life.” Nearly all led tragic, thwarted lives; all except one, Clarence Norris, dying before their time. Ozie Powell, for instance, was permanently disabled after being shot in the head in 1937 by a deputy while being transferred. Roy Wright committed double suicide, murdering his wife before shooting himself, clutching a Bible. Olen Montgomery drifted and drank from job to job – he told the NAACP everywhere he worked “they almost works me to death – and city to city, racking up multiple vagrancy and drunk and disorderly charges before falling out of the historical record completely.
But the most tragic of all in many ways was Haywood Patterson. Patterson was older and taller than the rest and with a surly look on his face, became a special target of prosecutors and guards. As Patterson said later in his biography, “I always protested when I didn’t like things. Down South, I always talked like I wanted: before Scottsboro, during it and since.” Patterson finally escaped Alabama prisons after several attempts and fled to Detroit, where he lived semi-underground. Alabama authorities discovered Patterson’s whereabouts and demanded his extradition but were turned down by Michigan’s governor. It was while in Detroit that Patterson sat down with Earl Conroy, a Communist Party writer, and dictated his memoirs.
The result, “Scottsboro Boy,” has to be ranked as one of the major coming-to-consciousness memoirs in Black American literature. Taut and harrowing, Patterson describes the brutality of Alabama prisons and labor camps in vividly intense detail. At the end, he says:
“Sometimes as I lay out here in the North in my little room waiting either for the law or freedom to come and take me, I think of my people down South. Then I want to go there, to be among them, live there. I think of a small town maybe where I might settle, and have a home and family, maybe a business or a small piece of land. It’s what a man needs. What my people need. Land. The land they live on, have worked so much and owned so little.”
“I have had a great struggle. But I want the world to know I am unbeaten.”
“I’ll lay out here in my room – and see what you do.”
“Then, I’ll make my last move. . .”
Only nine months after escaping, Patterson stabbed a man to death in a barroom brawl. He died of lung cancer in the prison hospital at age 39 having spent most of his adult life in prison, much of it on death row.
The first thing you notice when you drive into downtown Scottsboro are the large signs for Unclaimed Baggage. Scottsboro is the nation’s graveyard of lost baggage ; everything passengers leave on planes gets shipped here to a hangar like building where it’s all sold at cut rate prices. Up the walls near the ceiling hang such left detritus as a bass tuba and a twelve foot blue Kayak, with attached plaques explaining how the items were left too far up for anyone to read. But shoppers pay no attention; the racks at Unclaimed Baggage stay mobbed, its parking lot always full and nearby streets bumper to bumper. In every open patch of free land surrounding Unclaimed Baggage, enterprising locals set up little flea markets, hoping to draw away some business of their own.
In this free-for-all, it took several drive-bys to spot the Scottsboro Boys Museum, housed in a former church just one block from Unclaimed Baggage. Despite the museum being listed online as open the second and third Saturdays of the month, the building was in fact closed and looked like it hadn’t been open for some time. Grass grew ankle high and black starlings flew in and out of a faded white steeple with peeling paint; black shades were pulled down inside covering the windows. It looked more like something out of a horror film than a museum. When I walked closer to take a picture, I spotted a used syringe in the grass pointing at the front door like a wayward compass.
The Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center seems to be a labor of love of one older African-American woman determined to keep the memory of the Scottsboro Boys alive and it’s unclear how much support the museum gets from the state. On the website, the building is offered for rent for weddings and social events. Who will take it over when she has to pass the torch is anyone’s guess.
A few blocks south lies the Jackson County Courthouse, a magnificent Georgian structure set on a wide European style square. Around the square facing the courthouse range antique shops, law offices and the like. We went in an open coffeehouse, where piped-in electronicia softly played in the background and a few Scottsboro hipsters fiddled with cell phones on thick mismatched brown cushioned chairs. I sat at the front windows looking at the courthouse, imagining the demonstrations of thousands of enraged whites again demanding convictions and hoping to dispense rough justice taking place in this square 80 years ago. The crowd – more accurately a baying lynch mob – was so unruly that deputies with automatic rifles were stationed around the courthouse to keep order. Someone who grew up in Scottsboro told us that the jail where the Scottsboro Boys were held had been torn down years ago.
In 2004, the city of Scottsboro built a commemorative marker for the Scottsboro Boys trials at the Courthouse. As described in a newspaper account: “An 87-year-old black man who attended the ceremony recalled the mob scene following the Boys’ arrest was frightening and that death threats were leveled against the jailed suspects. Speaking of the decision to install the marker, he said. ‘I think it will bring the races together, to understand each other better.’” Last year, an overflow crowd turned up at the Decatur Public Library for the release of a new book on the Scottsboro trials held in Decatur written by a local African-American historian.
“Scottsboro Boy” remains out of print.