Remembering Shelia Washington

From the February 2021 Desktop News | The late Shelia Washington, founding director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, will be remembered by the UA community for the strong partnership she built between the institution and UA scholars and students.

Washington opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum in 2010 to honor the nine young African-American men who were falsely accused of rape and subsequently imprisoned in the 1930s. Since it opened its doors, Washington and colleagues in Scottsboro and beyond have built a strong foundation on which the museum will continue to grow.

An avid proponent of civic engagement and public scholarship, Washington had a decade-long relationship with UA students and faculty. Her ties to UA’s American Studies department and New College were formed after UA student Jennifer M. Barnett interviewed Washington for a project in her class on Black women’s stories. Since then, scholars and researchers from the campus have traveled to Scottsboro to learn from Washington’s museum, her hometown, and Washington herself.

“What started as an interview turned into a conversation, with both of us jumping from subject to subject,” Barnett said. “This interview was a pivotal point for both of us. She opened the door to a stranger and we left as friends.”

Washington became a strong advocate for the legal, posthumous exoneration of the Scottsboro Boys shortly after opening her museum. In conjunction with UA scholars Ellen Griffith Spears and John Miller, along with PhD candidate Tom Reidy and a number of graduate and undergraduate students, she spearheaded the campaign for the Scottsboro Boys Act, which allowed the state to posthumously pardon convictions that had resulted from racial discrimination.

“Her bold and determined leadership inspired and educated a new generation of students,” said Spears, “making clear the parallels between the Scottsboro cases and the Black Lives Matter movement of today.”

“Because of the partnership with the University and the students, this happened with everybody working hand in hand to get history corrected,” Washington said in 2014. “I don’t think the museum would have come as far as we came without the push of the University sending students here to do things that needed to be done.”

In 2013, the Alabama House and Senate voted unanimously to exonerate all of the Scottsboro defendants and authorize the Scottsboro Boys Act. The bill was signed into law by former governor Robert Bentley at the museum.

As part of the collaboration, Washington and her team at the museum participated in several UA partnerships, including publishing an online archival exhibit, creating a travel guide and website for the museum, and an exhibit at UA’s Paul Jones Museum featuring photographs taken at the Scottsboro trials in Morgan County.

In 2020, the Scottsboro Boys Museum celebrated its tenth anniversary. Renovations will begin on the museum this spring. Building on Washington’s indefatigable leadership, the museum will continue to take on ambitious projects and form partnerships with scholars and students around the state.