SCOTTSBORO, Ala. -- For years, each time someone called the Jackson County, Ala., tourism office looking for an educational site on the Scottsboro Boys, Mary Lackey had nothing to offer them.
Other than a small marker on the side of the Jackson County Courthouse, the city of Scottsboro had no museum or monument of any kind for visitors to learn about what is arguably the most well-known event in the town's history. In 1931, nine black youths ages 12 to 19 were hauled off a train, tried and sentenced to death on a false report that they raped two white women.
"We didn't have any information or tourist attractions about the Scottsboro Boys, and a woman who called and asked about it was appalled. She had a group she wanted to bring into town," said Mrs. Lackey, an administrative assistant for the tourism office.
Lifelong Scottsboro resident Sheila Washington was equally horrified about the lack of information. An avid collector of memorabilia from the civil rights movement, Mrs. Washington got interested in the Scottsboro Boys after her parents gave her a book written by one of the young men.
This month, Mrs. Washington opened a museum she founded in their honor.
"This story has been with me since I read that book. It's something Scottsboro should no longer be ashamed of," she said. "It used to be a dark cloud. Nobody wanted to talk about it."
The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center is located in Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church, Jackson County's oldest standing black church. Filled with books, newspaper clippings and antiques, the small room creates a timeline of the events surrounding the case from 1931 until the last surviving member of the group died in 1989.
Local historian Garry Morgan helped put the museum together, collecting donated items or buying them at auctions or on eBay. He also is writing a book about the Scottsboro case.
In 1931, nine black youths aged 12 to 19 who were traveling on a train from Chattanooga were stopped in Paint Rock, Ala., and accused of raping two white women who were living as hobos. They were tried in Scottsboro, where the nearest courthouse was located, and sentenced to death. Several years later one of the women confessed to making up the story. Through the years, some of the youths' cases were dismissed and some eventually were pardoned.
Museum founder Sheila Washington would like to connect with surviving family members of the Scottsboro Boys. Several were from Chattanooga and are buried in the Pleasant Hills Cemetery near Bakewell. Call the museum at 256-244-1310.
One of his favorite items in the museum is a 5-cent postage stamp that supporters used to sell during picnics to raise money for the defense of the nine accused youths.
The museum is open on the second and third Saturdays of every month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Central time, or by appointment for a group or educational tour.
Wearing a brightly colored Black History Month T-shirt last week, Ms. Washington said she was relieved that her town finally has a place to honor the Scottsboro Boys.
"It's been 79 years, and there's still interest in the trial," she said. "Now they finally have a place to rest."
Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.