SCOTTSBORO, Ala. (AP) — A funeral was held Saturday for Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, which explores the plight of nine Black males falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.
Washington, the executive director of the museum, died Jan. 29. She was 61. Her funeral service was streamed online.
Washington opened the museum in 2010 dedicated to the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine young African-Americans wrongly accused of raping two white women. The case came to symbolize racial injustice in the Deep South last century.
Sarah Stahl, director of marketing and tourism for the Mountain Lakes Chamber of Commerce in Alabama, had worked alongside Washington to help promote the museum, which re-created the courtroom where the Scottsboro Boys were put on trial. She said in a televised interview that the two became friends while working together.
“I was just really drawn to her passion and what she’s been working a decade to accomplish,” said Stahl, speaking with WAFF-TV.
The nine black males were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northeast Alabama in 1931. The men were convicted by all-white juries, and all but the youngest defendant was sentenced to death. Five of the convictions were overturned in 1937 after one of the alleged victims recanted her story. All were ultimately freed.
Clarence Norris, the last known surviving defendant, was pardoned in 1976 by Alabama’s then-Gov. George C. Wallace.
Washington led efforts to definitively clear the names of the Scottsboro boys. With the help of a legal team at the University of Alabama, she pressed for state lawmakers to issue posthumous pardons in the case. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley exonerated them in 2013.
“She fought hard to bring well deserved recognition to the Scottsboro Boys, and she was so articulated in a lot of her speaking and seemed like this grand fighter for a cause, and she was,” Stahl said of Washington. “But that’s not all she was, she cared deeply about people regardless of their color, background or sexual orientation. She wanted to make sure that she gave God the glory in anything that she did.”