UA students play roles in raising awareness of – and rectifying – an 80-year-old case of injustice

By:    Date: 09-11-2014

Through the Scottsboro Boys Museum University-Community Partnership and service-learning courses, students contribute to the museum and history in numerous ways.



All college students study history, but rarely do they make history in the process. A group of University of Alabama students did just that by launching and participating in projects that led to a final chapter in a case of miscarried justice that stained the state’s reputation for more than 80 years.

In 1931, nine African-Americans ages 13 to 19 were pulled from a train in Paint Rock, Ala., arrested and jailed in nearby Scottsboro, where they were tried and declared guilty of raping two white women – a crime that never occurred. The situation gained international attention after biased juries and rushed trials led to death sentences for eight of the defendants.

The long campaign to save the youths’ lives was one of the most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history. While each defendant spent at least six years in prison, some much longer, all nine Scottsboro Boys were eventually paroled or freed; charges were dropped against five of the men in 1937, and one – Clarence Norris – was pardoned in 1976. Their story is widely believed to have been an inspiration for Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the U.S. Supreme Court twice heard arguments in the case, leading to landmark civil-rights precedents. Over time, however, the case fell into relative obscurity, particularly in Alabama.


‘The Scottsboro Boys’ meet with their attorney Samuel Leibowitz. TOP: Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center director Shelia Washington and UA graduate Tom Reidy hold an exoneration resolution they helped procure for the men.

In 2010, when Jennifer Barnett, a UA graduate student in women’s studies, mentioned to one of her professors an oral-history interview she was doing with Shelia Washington, the chairperson of the newly formed Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center, she was unaware she was setting in motion a series of events that would reignite the decades-old case.

“I was asked to interview someone who self-identified as a black woman,” Barnett said. “I have always been interested in civil rights history, and my mom had saved a little snippet from the local paper about a woman who was working on opening a museum to honor the Scottsboro Boys. I decided I would contact her and see if she would talk with me about her
life in Scottsboro and why she began the project. It all started there.”

Coincidentally, UA New College director Jim Hall was bringing two Scottsboro scholars
– Susan Pennybacker and James A. Miller – to campus to give talks. Ellen Spears, the New College and American Studies assistant professor to whom Barnett had spoken about her interview, knew of these plans. She suggested Barnett ask Washington if she would like the scholars to visit the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center.

“It was a wonderful example of student and faculty collaboration,” Spears said. Spears ended up driving the scholars to Scottsboro, where they met with Washington and gave lectures on their books. That initial contact led to The University of Alabama forming a partnership with the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center, which was founded to commemorate the lives and legacy of the nine young men and to promote civil rights and
appreciation of cultural diversity worldwide.

6As part of the partnership, UA students have contributed to the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center and to history in numerous ways, including developing a website for the museum, creating a travel guide with information about key sites related to the Scottsboro Boys Trials, assisting with fundraising, writing grant proposals and conducting research that led to an exhibit of rarely seen photos from one of the trials and an online exhibit of letters about the Scottsboro Boys case that were sent to Alabama governors during the 1930s. The efforts of students, faculty and the museum culminated in 2013 with legislation that exonerated all nine of the Scottsboro Boys and paved the way for pardons of the three whose convictions still stood.

Spears said students shaped history in two ways. “They dug up research and helped to write the history, producing usable contributions to remembering this iconic moment of Jim Crow history in the American South,” she said. “They also helped facilitate a legal
change – the real, practical, public-policy effect of clearing these men’s names in the legal record.”

Tom Reidy, a student who was working toward his doctorate degree in history, played a crucial role in achieving the pardons. Spears invited him to join the team partnering with the Scottsboro Boys Museum in early 2011. While working on the travel guide and the
history section of a grant proposal, he became friends with Washington, whose dream was to procure pardons for the Scottsboro Boys.

Reidy and Washington met multiple times with members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and with state senators and representatives, eventually negotiating legislation that would make that dream a reality.

Reidy also wrote an article for Alabama Heritage, a quarterly history magazine published by The University of Alabama, that called attention to the need for pardons and played an important role in the process.


Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley prepares to sign into law the Scottsboro Boys Act and the exoneration resolution. photo courtesy Alabama Heritage magazine

When Reidy, Washington and Spears met with a member of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in May 2012, they learned posthumous pardons were not legally possible in Alabama. State law would have to be changed.

So they began meeting with north Alabama legislators and other state leaders. Reidy said that while the Board of Pardons and Paroles and lawmakers wanted to help in every way they could, there were concerns that had to be addressed in any legislation that was drafted.

Chief among them was the fear a large number of people would request pardons for deceased relatives. “There was a spirit of ‘Let’s pardon the Scottsboro Boys because
the vast majority of people realize they didn’t commit these crimes,’” Reidy said. “The question was how to do it without opening a big can of worms.”

To assuage these worries, several limitations were imposed. Posthumous pardons could only be granted to those convicted of capital crimes. John Miller, assistant director of New College, Spears and Reidy contributed to the Scottsboro Boys Act, which would allow posthumous pardons, and a resolution exonerating the Scottsboro Boys.

Around this time, Reidy’s article, which looked into the 1976 pardon of Clarence Norris and asked why other defendants couldn’t be pardoned based on the same body of evidence, was published. Reidy, Spears and Washington sent the article, along with a letter they and 12 Scottsboro historians and other scholars signed, to the Alabama governor’s office and to those whose support was needed to pass the legislation.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s office issued a public statement. “The governor basically said, ‘Put something in front of me, and I’ll sign it,’” Reidy recalled.

The Associated Press picked up the article and it was circulated internationally.
One of Rosa Parks’ lawyers and other civil rights leaders made public statements supporting the pardons. “It did kind of take on a life of its own,” Reidy said. “The article exceeded our expectations with the amount of feedback it generated and the exposure it gave to our plan. It was just timed perfectly.”

Reidy and Washington continued meeting with legislators, and groups from Decatur, Ala., (where the Scottsboro Boys retrials were held) and Jackson County (where Scottsboro is located) agreed to both unanimously in March 2013, and the governor signed them into law during a ceremony held at the museum in May 2013.

Pardons still had to be obtained for the three Scottsboro Boys who had convictions on record. Miller took the lead in preparing the petition that was submitted to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and in collecting supporting affidavits and exhibits, being
particularly careful because the case would set precedent. “As a professor at a public university, I feel like I have an obligation to lend my skill sets to communities in ways that better the state, and I think that this is an example of that,” Miller said. “People will say that the pardons are merely symbolic, that this is just posturing. I disagree with that. I think posthumous pardons are an important signal to be sent on the behalf of a justice system. This says that judicial systems are not perfect but that they will take actions to address wrongs. Now, it shouldn’t take 80 years, but for a state like Alabama to very publicly take steps to do the right thing shows that getting it right is what matters.”

Washington said she was both sad and happy in the moment the pardons were announced, and that a period of rejoicing followed. “Because of the partnership with the University and the students, this happened with everybody working hand in hand to get history corrected,” she said. “I don’t think the museum would have come as far as we came without the push of the University sending students here to do things that needed to be done.”

Spears said the projects benefitted students as well. “This experience introduced them to an important moment in U.S. history that most of them had not learned about in high school, taught them archival research methods and gave them excellent experience working in a community partnership,” she said.

Reidy, a non-traditional student in his 50s, said he was honored to play a role in the pardons process. “I read about the case in grad school, and it seemed like a travesty,” he said. “Other than my three children, this is the most rewarding thing I’ve experienced.”

Reidy said he learned a great deal. “I’ve never been intimately involved in a political process before,” he said. “It’s really interesting, and I don’t think you can learn it in a classroom. I learned something every time I met with these legislators.”

Observing Spears and Miller working with various institutions also was instructive, he said. “I’m somebody who jumps into things and says ‘let’s do it,’ but they operated with the necessary restraints. They knew if we acted too quickly, it could kill the whole thing.”

Now a history instructor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and a member of the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center’s advisory board, Reidy said he hopes to introduce more civil rights classes at UAH and will encourage his students to get involved in political processes when injustices can be rectified.

He said he was encouraged about race relations after interviewing people in north Alabama about the Scottsboro Boys case. “I felt like I saw growth in how people realized there were travesties in the Jim Crow years,” Reidy said. “Some people said the Scottsboro Boys were wrongfully convicted, but why pardon them? That’s different from questioning their innocence or saying they deserved their sentence. In the public, there seems to be no question of innocence anymore. ”

Other student projects related to the Scottsboro Boys case and museum include:


UA student Margaret Sasser spent the summer of 2013 digitizing correspondence about the Scottsboro Boys case sent to Alabama governors during the 1930s.

Hosted by the Alabama Digital Humanities Center, “To See Justice Done: The Letters from the Scottsboro Trials” is an online exhibit of correspondence about the Scottsboro Boys case sent to Alabama governors during the 1930s.

Margaret Sasser, an American Studies graduate student, spent the summer of 2013 in the state capital of Montgomery, scouring an archive of thousands of letters, telegrams, petitions, postcards and resolutions contained in 17 boxes. She earned academic credit for selecting and organizing material into the online exhibit through AMS 505 The Scottsboro
Digital Humanities Project. “I essentially searched box by box and recorded metadata about items that I found to be either representative of the collection or uniquely interesting,” Sasser said.

For approximately 1,500 items, she recorded information including the date of the correspondence and who sent it, the location from which it was sent, organizations with which the sender was affiliated, a description of the message and whether it gave a positive or negative response to the trials. She also scanned and uploaded to the Internet images of each item so others working on the project at UA could familiarize themselves with the collection. “Our goal was to conceive of a framework, or a way of grouping, these letters into an online exhibit,” Sasser said. “This has been the most challenging part of the work.”

The group ultimately chose approximately 150 items to be part of the exhibit. Sasser said there were many surprising things about the collection. “For one, it proves the huge international impact of the trials,” she said. “It contained letters in many languages from almost every continent and from dozens of countries. The collection also illustrated that positive and negative viewpoints about the case could be found in both the North and the South. The most surprising letters were extreme in either hatred or compassion. For example, one sender offered to electrocute the Scottsboro Boys himself in order to save the state money, while another offered to take the boys’ place in the electric chair.”

The tangibility of the letters and their strong expression of thoughts makes the juxtaposition of intolerance and empathy even more striking, Sasser said. “I think the project’s ability to illustrate this is significant and reminds us to tell difficult stories in their complexity and entirety,” she said.

As part of NEW 490 Museum Studies, three students – Sarah Thornburg, majoring in library and information science, Mo Fiorella and Stephanie Ballard (both New College majors) – chose to assist Reidy and Bonnie Applebeet, a graduate student in American
Studies, in working on the Scottsboro Boys Trials Historic Route Guide as their course project.

They researched the history of the cases, created a timeline and drafted write-ups about key sites.

Applebeet attended planning meetings in Scottsboro and Birmingham and cleared publication rights for photos used in the guide.

Fiorella, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and a focus on community renewal, designed the brochure, which includes a map, photos from the 1930s and summaries of each location on the route.

“The Scottsboro project touched on many ideas we discussed in the Museum Studies class – how to portray individuals, fighting hard to find facts and casting information in the appropriate light for a situation,” she said. Guest speakers talked about driving trails in Alabama, noting how they promote tourism and can stimulate the economy.

“I hope I get to work with more projects that help share stories that influence others,” Fiorella said.


Student Andy Ray developed a website for the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center.

Under the direction of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, students earning honors and computer-science independent-study credit developed a website for the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center.

Drew Hoover, a history major and art minor who graduated in 2012, and a CESR staff member traveled to Scottsboro to shoot photos and video and gather information for the museum’s website.

Andy Ray, a December 2011 graduate who majored in operations management and minored in computer science, built the website. Ray said he enjoyed the project because he learned a great deal while giving back to the community. “Some things a person can learn by sitting in a classroom, but this gave me a hands-on learning experience,” he said. “The museum board members have such a passion for what they represent, and it was wonderful to be able to give them a website to help them get their message out.”


[l-r] John Miller, assistant director, New College; Shelia Washington, founder and director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center; Ellen Spears, assistant professor, New College; students Margaret Sasser, Melissa Elliott and Caitlin Roberts

In conducting research for the travel guide, students in the Museum Studies course discovered in Morgan County an archive of photographs documenting the 1933 retrial of Haywood Patterson.

The photos were taken by Fred Hiroshige, a Japanese American who lived in Decatur, Ala. Realizing they were looking at a large collection of rarely seen photographs, the students notified UA professors.

Morgan County archivist John Allison and UA New College graduate Carol Puckett created a traveling exhibit called “Outside the Protective Circle of Humanity” that was on display at the Paul R. Jones Gallery in Tuscaloosa in January and February 2014.

Students and faculty also held a reception and arranged for guest speakers to make presentations in conjunction with the exhibit. Robin D.G. Kelley, the Gary Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, and Dan T. Carter, education foundation professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina and author of “Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South” gave talks that were free and open to the public.

Sasser helped prepare the walls and hang exhibit photos at the gallery and gave a Girl Scout troop a tour of the exhibit. At the reception, she presented a slideshow she created of letters from the digital exhibit.

Members of the Spring 2014 Museum Studies course assisted with the reception and wrote a sample grant proposal for the Scottsboro Boys Museum.

The Scottsboro Boys Museum University-Community Partnership is ongoing. As of Spring 2014, the museum had hosted 12,000 visitors from 12 countries.

Barnett, who helped the museum with fundraising after completing her oral-history interview with Washington and continues to be involved with its programs, said she learned talking with peers, colleagues and professors about one’s projects is important. “You never know when a spark might light a fire,” said Barnett, now pursuing a doctorate degree in educational leadership with a concentration in social and cultural studies. “If you are working on something you love and feel passionately about, chances are someone
else will find it interesting as well. Collaboration is key.”

To learn more about the Scottsboro Boys Museum University-Community Partnership, contact Ellen Spears at or 205-348-8410.