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Remembering Sheila Washington, Who Told The Story Of The Scottsboro Boys

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Alabama now, where people are mourning the death of Sheila Washington. She founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and fought to bring honor and dignity to the nine young Black males falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. Janae Pierre of member station WBHM reports.

JANAE PIERRE, BYLINE: As a child, Sheila Washington was fascinated with the story of the Scottsboro Boys. They ranged in age from 12 to 19 and were traveling by train through Jackson County, Ala., when they were accused of raping two women. An all-white jury in Scottsboro sentenced eight of the nine to death. The 1931 trial drew national attention. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case leading to two landmark civil rights precedents regarding the right to counsel and nondiscrimination in jury selection. Washington learned about the case through an old book hidden in her father's pillowcase. Here's Washington sharing that story last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEILA WASHINGTON: I said, one day when I get older, I'm going to find a place and honor the Scottsboro boys and put this book on a table and burn a candle in their memory.

PIERRE: Washington did just what she said. In 2010 she opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. Archivist John Allison says Washington faced a lot of opposition when she opened the museum. He says as generations passed, people in the majority-white town wanted to move on and forget about it.

JOHN ALLISON: Sheila knew that this was a story worth telling. 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.

PIERRE: It took Washington 17 years 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. Loretta Wimberly, a founding member of the council, says Washington often faced resistance, but she was determined.

LORETTA WIMBERLY: Sometimes you have to be persistent. You have to be patient, but you have to be courageous as well. And she was a courageous, persistent person, and she believed in what she was doing.

PIERRE: 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, Washington worked with state lawmakers to issue posthumous pardons when convictions involved racial discrimination. In 2013, the governor signed the bill, and the Scottsboro Boys were exonerated. Allison, the archivist, says Washington's efforts helped the city overcome a big racial stumbling block.

ALLISON: And I think it 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. It's never too late to right the wrongs of the past.

PIERRE: Washington died unexpectedly at the age of 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. For NPR News, I'm Janae Pierre in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELSA PELLING'S "FORTIFIED HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.