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As society moves closer to the 100-year anniversary of a landmark case in which nine Black teens were falsely accused and convicted by an all-white jury of raping two white women — a case that led to two major Supreme Court rulings — a building that housed one of the accusers is being renovated to tell their story and of civil rights in Decatur, according to one of the women behind the renovation.
The Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA Civil Rights Museum was first announced about two years ago, and board members are currently in the process of raising funds for each phase of construction.
Frances Tate, founder of Celebrating Early Old Town with Art, said it’s been overwhelming, but she and others are focused on preserving and sharing the history of Old Town, Decatur and the Scottsboro Boys.
Tate grew up in the Old Town community of Decatur. She remembers her parents telling her about the Scottsboro Boys trial and learning mostly through oral storytelling what life was like back then.
“The Old Town community was terrorized during the trial, day and night, by the (Ku Klux) Klan and the shooting up the neighborhood,” Tate said.
“One young man, James Royal, was killed during one of those episodes. All of the reporters that came in, from all over the United States … had to be bused from house to house and stand guard to keep them from getting killed.”
The first trials took place in the early 1930s in Scottsboro. All but one of the Boys were sentenced to death. Their cases were appealed, with some eventually being retried in Decatur between 1933 and 1937.
Ruby Bates, one of the women who falsely accused the Scottsboro Boys, was housed during the trial in the building that will soon be used for the civil rights museum that will tell the Boys’ story in Decatur, Tate said.
“I tell people, ‘You have to think of the time it happened,’” Tate said. “It’s something that, for some reason, has been forgotten. But people do not realize the historical and legal aspects of the Scottsboro Boys trial.”
Among them are the two Supreme Court rulings brought about by the trial.
“One, you had to have a jury of your peers, and you had to have legal counsel,” Tate said. “If you don’t have the money, the city or state got to give you someone for your legal defense. … A lot of people don’t realize it, but that revolutionized the whole legal system, those two rulings.”
Tate hopes to raise awareness of Decatur’s role in the trials and in history through the museum. She said her mission started with creating photos of Old Town to share that community’s history. As the years went on, she decided there was a need for a museum.
Now, they have a building that played a prominent role in the trial and the property next to it for the museum. Tate said Phase One of the museum’s construction is renovating the old house, a $500,000 project.
“Nothing is up to code,” she said. “We are in the process of doing all the eaves and the facia boards … then we’re going to put a complete new roof on. We have brick masonry structure that has to be done. Everything has to be done.”
The next step, which Tate called Phase Two, will be constructing a new, $10 million building on the adjacent property. Tate said the house is not large enough for everything they want to include in the museum, “but we need to preserve the house because of its historical value.”
Once complete, the museum will include exhibits reflecting the rich history of North Alabama’s civil rights struggles and victories, including the Scottsboro Boys trials, oral interviews about Old Town and numerous other items and memorabilia.
Tate said the goal is to have the house renovated within the next 18 months and the museum ready for visitors within about three years.
Those who wish to support the project financially can do so through a tax-deductible donation. Checks should be made payable to Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA Civil Rights Museum Fund and mailed to:
Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA Civil Rights Museum Fund
P.O. Box 802
Decatur, AL 35602
Donors can also click here to visit the museum’s website.