Sara Kugler, @sarakug
Updated February 22, 2013
All photographs courtesy of the Morgan County Archives, Decatur, Alabama. The photographs may not be reused without the written permission of the Morgan County Archives.
Carol Puckett was doing research in the Morgan County Archives in Decatur, Alabama when she came across 127 photographs from inside the courtroom of one of the most famous legal trials in Alabama history. The photos were from the retrial of Haywood Patterson, one of the nine Scottsboro Boys falsely accused and arrested for the alleged rape of two white women in 1931.
Most of the widely circulated photos from the Scottsboro Boys’ trials are from staged events, but the collection Puckett found featured almost entirely candid shots. Morgan County had purchased the negatives from the photographer’s estate in 1998. While the photographs had been used by researchers and filmmakers, they had not yet been featured as a collection. “They’re just astonishing photographs,” Puckett explains. “I just saw copies of them and thought, at some point I want to work on that. And that point turned out to be last year.”
Puckett connected with John Allison, the Director of the County Archives, who had recently worked with Alabama Senator Arthur Orr to secure funding for such an exhibit. Together with a photographer and Dr. Dan T. Carter, author of Scottsboro, A Tragedy of The American South, they selected 46 photographs and created a traveling exhibit about the case entitled “The Scottsboro Boys: Outside the Protective Circle of Humanity.” The exhibit features a section on the prosecution, the defense, and the trial, but also one entitled “Coming to Decatur” depicting the town full of press and spectators. “After the Supreme Court ruling says it has to be a retrial [in Decatur] because of the grave injustice of what happened in Scottsboro… the people in Decatur were extremely conscious that the world was watching them,” Puckett explains. “This was the first time that we had national press here, and we had national black press here… people across the country, black and white, were getting the story.”
They’re just astonishing photographs. I just saw copies of them and thought, at some point I want to work on that. And that point turned out to be last year.” -Carol Puckett
The photographer was Fred Hiroshige, who had originally headed South to be a fruit picker. While on the cross-country trip from California to Georgia, Hiroshige’s bus stopped for a break in Decatur. “The bus station shared a backyard with a photography studio, and the owner of the studio struck up a conversation with him… the man basically had him end up staying and apprenticing, learning the business,” Puckett relays. “Fred ended up getting the studio and running it until 1976.”
Hiroshige requested a press pass for the first trial in Decatur, and was one of only six photographers allowed inside. Puckett believes Hiroshige’s background adds a unique element to how he captured the trial: “He is going to see things that the others would not see because he’s not from around here. It adds a real wonderful element to them.”
In 1931, the nine young black men, ages twelve to nineteen, were hoboing on a freight train. Two were brothers, but the rest did not know one another. After a fight broke out, the train was stopped and cleared. Two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, were also hoboing on the train, returning from hustling in Chattanooga. They were afraid of getting arrested for vagrancy, but additionally for violating the federal Mann Act, prohibiting individuals from crossing state borders for immoral purposes. From this fear, Price invented the story of rape by the nine black boys on the train, despite the fact they had not even been on the same cars.
Prices, Bates, and the nine boys were taken to Scottsboro, where two physicians independently determined there was no evidence of rape. Regardless, the boys were tried two weeks later and all given death sentences. “All of the good lawyers in town joined the prosecution team,” explains Puckett. A real estate lawyer initially represented the boys, although in subsequent trials the NAACP and International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist party, assisted them by securing Samuel Leibowitz as their lawyer.
Following a series of appeals, the boys were moved to Decatur. Even after Bates recanted her story, the jury again recommended death. In an unprecedented move, Judge James Horton threw out the jury’s decision and ordered a new trial. Puckett explains this was followed by “another seven years of legal wrangling and embarrassment to the state… it was just an absolute mess.”
In the next few days, the Scottsboro Boys may finally be pardoned and exonerated from that false conviction 82 years ago. The bills originated with Sheila Washington, a Scottsboro native who decided a historic marker on the courthouse lawn wasn’t sufficient commemoration for the events that took place. In 2010, she founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and began a push for the boys’ exoneration. Washington partnered with students and faculty at the University of Alabama to determine the best way to craft the resolution.
Pardon is too nebulous a word. I’ve had several interesting conversations with people asking, ‘If you pardon them, are you not going to go after the ones who did it?’ But the pardon process is what in reality exonerates them.”
They settled on a bill to allow posthumous pardons combined with an exoneration resolution. “The language is important,” Puckett emphasized. “Pardon is too nebulous a word. I’ve had several interesting conversations with people asking, ‘If you pardon them, are you not going to go after the ones who did it?’ But the pardon process is what in reality exonerates them.”
The Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-0 on February 13th to pass the pardon bill, which now is going to the Senate. Puckett is confident that both the resolution and bill will pass, finally delivering justice long overdue. Her exhibit aims to remind people about this part of Alabama’s past. “The tagline is we’re creatures of our culture,” she explained. “We have to note the signposts and make certain we don’t take those roads again.”
The exhibit opened on Monday, and Puckett hopes to take it across the country, hopefully with an added panel if the exoneration and pardon pass. After that, she said future activism is likely. “That just kind of comes as a way of life, you sort of wait and see what’s next,” she shared. “You find ways to get the message out there and there’s a lot of different ways. Just go about keeping issues of justice and freedom before people. It sort of becomes a way of life.”
You can find out more about the exhibit on the Southern Literary Trail website and on the Scottosboro Boys Museum website. To request the exhibit, please contact John Allison at email@example.com.
Watch Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Governor Bentley below.