Ms. Washington, a native of Scottsboro in northeastern Alabama, had never heard of the Scottsboro Boys or the notorious miscarriage of justice that befell them until she was 17, when she found a book hidden under a mattress at her home.
“You don’t need to know about that,” her stepfather told her. “Just keep quiet about this now.”
Instead, Ms. Washington made it her lifelong mission to obtain posthumous justice for the nine young Black men who had been accused of raping two White women on a train in 1931. Through multiple trials, two of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the plight of the Scottsboro Boys became one of the country’s first major civil rights cases. Their story has been featured in feature films, documentaries and a Broadway musical and helped shape the plot of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The book that Ms. Washington discovered under the mattress was “Scottsboro Boy,” a 1950 memoir by Haywood Patterson, who was convicted four times by all-White juries and sentenced to death three times.
“It gave me a passion,” Ms. Washington told the Guardian newspaper in 2013, “that one day I would hold that book, burn a candle, and set things right for the Scottsboro Boys.”
Besides Patterson, the eight other Scottsboro Boys were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams and brothers Andrew and Roy Wright. They ranged in age from 13 to 19.
None was from Alabama, and only four of them knew one another when they hopped a freight train on March 25, 1931, seeking to reach Memphis or other large cities to look for work during the Great Depression.
On the train, they and a few other Black men encountered several White men who were also stowaways, and the two groups got into a fight. Some of the White men later got off the train and told authorities they had been attacked by the Black group.
A posse of White vigilantes and police officers met the train at its next stop, a tiny town called Paint Rock, Ala. The nine Black teens were initially charged with assault, then later with rape after two young White women on the train said they had been assaulted.
They were taken to the county jail in Scottsboro, which then had a population of 2,300. The National Guard had to be called out to prevent a White mob from lynching the young inmates.
Within 15 days, all nine of the Scottsboro Boys were convicted of rape, and eight were sentenced to die in the electric chair. The youngest defendant, Roy Wright, escaped that fate by a single juror’s objection.
Various groups concerned about racial justice, including the NAACP, the Communist Party and the American Civil Liberties Union, rallied around the Scottsboro Boys and came to their defense. In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they did not receive adequate legal counsel in their original trials, creating a major legal precedent.
A year later, new trials were held in Decatur, Ala., about 60 miles from Scottsboro, with intense media coverage and a skilled defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz. One of the women who had accused the young men of rape, Ruby Bates, recanted her story.
Nonetheless, Patterson was convicted and sentenced to death a second time. The judge, James E. Horton, rejected the jury’s guilty verdict and canceled the other trials, noting that the defendants could not receive justice in the incendiary atmosphere of northern Alabama.
Later court proceedings dragged on for years. Another case, Norris v. Alabama, reached the Supreme Court, resulting in a landmark 1935 decision holding that Black defendants could not receive equal protection under the law if Black citizens were prohibited from serving on juries.
By the end of the 1930s, charges were dropped against four of the Scottsboro Boys; four were convicted of rape; and one was convicted of assaulting a deputy with a knife. In 1976, Alabama Gov. George Wallace pardoned Norris, who died in 1989 and was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys.
Ms. Washington knew nothing of this history when she was growing up in Scottsboro.
“The whites said to leave that dead dog sleeping,” she told the Huntsville Times in 2011.
Beginning in the early 1990s, she sought to commemorate the Scottsboro Boys and make her hometown confront its past.
“Shelia had some head winds and even worse in Scottsboro,” John Allison, an Alabama archivist who worked with Ms. Washington, said in an interview. “She was driven. She knew this was an important part of the civil rights story of this country.”
In 2010, after years of fundraising and acquiring artifacts, Ms. Washington opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in a building that had once been an African American church.
But that was not the end of her efforts. Three of the Scottsboro Boys — Patterson, Weems and Andy Wright — had never been pardoned, after spending years in prison.
“They became my brothers, and I had to get justice done for them,” Ms. Washington said in 2013. “It wasn’t fair that the others were free and these three were left undone.”
Because posthumous pardons could not be granted in the state, legislative action was needed. Faculty members at the University of Alabama helped with research, and Ms. Washington spoke with lawmakers.
Both houses of the state legislature unanimously passed two bills in 2013: one to allow the pardons and a second to grant full exoneration to the three Scottsboro Boys whose cases were unresolved.
Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley (R) signed the bill granting the pardons at the Scottsboro Boys Museum.
“I believe the boys can rest now,” Ms. Washington said.
Shelia Edwonna Branford was born Jan. 27, 1960, in Scottsboro. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother was a minister, her stepfather a church elder.
Ms. Washington worked for the Scottsboro city government for more than 20 years, first as secretary to the mayor and later in the parks and recreation department.
Her marriage to Ferry Washington ended in divorce. Survivors include two children; two sisters; a half sister; three stepsisters; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
In the days before her death, Ms. Washington had helped move artifacts to prepare for a renovation of the museum, which she called “a place of healing and restoring.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Shelia Washington’s first name as Sheila.
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