Remembering Sheila Washington, Who Brought Honor To The Scottsboro Boys


Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center

Scottsboro Boys Museum

Alabamians are mourning the death of Sheila Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. Washington fought to bring honor and dignity to the nine young Black males falsely accused of rape during the Jim Crow era.

As a child, Washington was fascinated with the story of the Scottsboro boys who ranged in age from 12-19. They were traveling by train through Jackson County when they were accused of raping two women. The 1931 trial drew national attention. An all-white jury in Scottsboro sentenced eight of the nine to death. 

Later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case leading to two landmark civil rights precedents regarding the right to counsel and non-discrimination in jury selection. 

A postcard sent to Alabama Governor B. M. Miller from a New York woman protesting the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys.
Credit: Alabama Department of Archives & History

Washington learned about the case through an old book hidden in her father’s pillow case. She’d share that childhood story often, saying  “one day when I get older, I’m going to find a place and honor the Scottsboro boys. I’m gonna put this book on the table and burn a candle in their memory.”

Washington did just that in 2010 when she opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.

Morgan County Archivist John Allison said Washington faced a lot of opposition when she opened the museum. He said as generations passed, people in the majority white town wanted to move on and forget about it.

“Sheila knew that this was a story worth telling,” he said. “It was a story that we needed to tell, a story we needed to address about the injustices that had happened to these young men.”

It took Washington nearly two decades to open the museum. Allison helped her gather materials from the trials. 

Washington also received help from the Black Heritage Council of the Alabama Historical Commission. Louretta Wimberly, a founding member of the council, said Washington often faced resistance but she was determined.

“Sometimes you have to be persistent,” she said. “You have to be patient, but you have to be courageous. She was a courageous, persistent person and she believed in what she was doing.”

Washington also became the driving force to clear the names of the Scottsboro boys for good. With help from a legal team at the University of Alabama, she worked with state lawmakers to issue posthumous pardons when convictions involved racial discrimination. 

In 2013, then Governor Robert Bentley signed the bill and the Scottsboro boys were exonerated. Allison, the archivist, said Washington’s efforts helped the city overcome a big racial stumbling block. 

“And I think that also maybe helped us to set a precedent that these things could be done, that it’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s never too late to right the wrongs of the past.”

Washington died unexpectedly on Friday, January 29. She was 61. She’ll be remembered for her courageous fight to bring honor to the Scottsboro boys even though they didn’t live to see it.

Tribute to Shelia Washington With profound sadness, we learned of the death of Shelia Washington on Friday. Shelia was…

Posted by Widen the Circle on Monday, February 1, 2021

More Front Page Coverage

Environmental Groups Appeal Judge’s Cahaba River Ruling To The Supreme Court

Two local environmental groups are appealing a Jefferson County Circuit Court’s recent decision to throw out the lawsuit against the Birmingham Water Works Board.

Bang, Bang. You’re Closed: Birmingham Threatens To Close Clubs With Violent Episodes

A drive-by shooting at Club Euphoria in west Birmingham left 21-year-old Lykeria Taylor dead and another male injured. Earlier that night, gunfire broke out at the club, leaving three others with non-life-threatening injuries.

Five Ways Birmingham Is Celebrating Its 150th Birthday

Mayor Randall Woodfin and the CEO of Vulcan Park and Museum announced this week a series of events to celebrate Birmingham’s 150 anniversary.

Shipt Founder, Bill Smith, Brings His Latest Startup To Birmingham

Landing, an apartment rental company, will relocate it headquarters to Birmingham, creating more than 800 new jobs.

To Curb Gun Violence In Gulf States, Activists Are Taking A Closer Look At Policing Alternatives

Over Memorial Day weekend, at least 26 shootings were reported in major cities across Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. At least 10 people were killed and 17 others were injured. It was the latest example of rising homicides and gun violence across the Gulf states this year.

More Front Page Coverage