On March 24, 1931, two mill girls from Huntsville in Madison County, northern Alabama, dressed up in overalls and hoboed their way by freight train to Chattanooga, Tenn., about 97 miles away. The older of the two, Victoria Price, who said she was born in Fayettesville, Tenn. and gave her age as 21, planned the trip, urging the younger one, Ruby Bates, 17 years old, to go with her.
All that is in known so far of this trip is what Victoria Price later told concerning it on the witness stand. No check on the truth of her story was made at the trial. According to this story, the two girls arrived in Chattanooga late Tuesday, March 24, and went to spend the night at the home of Mrs. Callie Brochie, who lived, according to Victoria, several blocks off Market Street on North Seventh. Victoria said she did not know the number of the house, but found the place by asking a boy on the street where Mrs. Brochie lived. He pointed it out to the two girls, she said, and all she could say was that it was the fourth house in the block.
A thorough investigation of the neighborhood later by the attorney for the defense failed to discover either Mrs. Brochie or the house she was said to live in.
The Return to Huntsville
As the story of Victoria Price goes, the two girls spent the night with Mrs. Brochie, and set out the next morning with her to look for work in the mills. Victoria was not clear in her trial testimony as to the number and location of these mills where she said they tried to get work. Finding no jobs open, they decided to return home to Huntsville. This was around ten o'clock on the morning of March 25. Boarding an oil tanker at first, they later climbed over into a gondola, or open topped freight car used for carrying gravel. The car was partly filled with gravel. Here they met seven white boys and began talking to them Ruby declared in a private interview later that she did not speak to them but stayed in one end of the car by herself, while Victoria was talking, laughing and singing with the white boys in the other end of the car. Victoria, however, said that both she and Ruby had talked to the boys.
As the freight neared Stevenson, less than half the way to Huntsville, Victoria testified that the 12 Negroes climbed into the gondola in which the two girls were riding with the seven white youths, walking over the top of a box car in front and jumping into the gondola. Ruby said in a personal interview later that she did not know how many colored boys were in the crowd. She said she was too frightened to count them. The Negroes gave the number of their gang as 15. Victoria maintained emphatically that there were 12.
According to Victoria's testimony, a Negro identified at the trial as Charlie Weems came first waving a pistol, followed by the others in the crowd. A mile or two past Stevenson, Victoria said that the Negroes began fighting with the white boys, shouting "unload, you white sons-of-bitches" and forcing the white boys to jump from the freight which was moving at a fast rate of speed. One of the white boys, Orvil Gilley, who said he was afraid to jump for fear he would be killed, was allowed by the Negroes to remain. One of the Negroes testified that he pulled Gilley back upon the car as he was hanging over the edge for fear he might fall between the cars and be killed. The local papers reporting the trial, however, claimed that he was forced to remain out of viciousness to witness the alleged assault.
Victoria's story continued that while the freight was moving rapidly between Stevenson and Paint Rock, a distance of approximately 38 miles, the Negroes having driven the seven white boys from the train, attacked the two girls. Victoria Price testified that six raped her and six, Ruby Bates. Three of the ones who attacked Ruby got off before the train stopped at Paint Rock, Victoria said. She alleged that Charlie Weems was the leader and carried a pistol, but that Clarence Norris was the first one to attack her. He was followed by four others who took turns holding, she claimed, and then the leader, Weems, as the last one, was in the process of raping her when the train stopped at Paint Rock and the Negroes were captured by the posse who had been notified by telegraph from Stevenson that the Negroes were on the train.
The white gang, after having been put off the train, had informed the station master at Stevenson that the Negroes and the two white girls were on the freight. The station agent telegraphed ahead to Scottsboro, a station about 18 miles west of Stevenson, to have the train stopped, but the freight had already passed there, so Paint Rock, some 20 miles farther, was notified by telegraph.
Here nine of the Negroes were seized by an armed posse of officers and men. The other Negroes had left the train before it arrived at Paint Rock and nothing more has been heard from them. A report appeared in the press some days after the trial that two Negroes were captured and an attempt made to identify them as members of the crowd of nine Negroes in the Scottsboro case. Nothing more was said about it, so the attempt apparently fell through.
The International Labor Defense, which had representatives on the scene at the time of the trial in Scottsboro, and whose attorney, George Chamlee, of Chattanooga, later made investigations of various phases of the case not brought out at the trial, claims that when the two girls were taken from the train at Paint Rock, they made no charges against the Negroes, until after they were taken into custody; that their charges were made after they had found out the spirit of the armed men that came to meet the train and catch the Negroes, and that they were swept into making their wholesale accusation against the Negroes merely by assenting to the charges as presented by the men who seized the nine Negroes.
There is no way of proving this conclusively, but from the interview I had with the two girls separately several weeks after the trial, I would say that there is a strong possibility of truth in this statement. The talk with Victoria Price, particularly, convinced me that she was the type who welcomes attention and publicity at any price. The price in this case meant little to her, as she has no notions of shame connected with sexual intercourse in any form and was quite unbothered in alleging that she went through such an experience as the charges against the nine Negro lads imply. Having been in direct contact from the cradle with the institution of prostitution as a side-line necessary to make the meager wages of a mill worker pay the rent and buy the groceries, she has no feeling of revulsion against promiscuous sexual intercourse such as women of easier lives might suffer. It is very much a matter of the ordinary routine of life to her, known in both Huntsville and Chattanooga as a prostitute herself.
The younger girl, Ruby Bates, found herself from the beginning pushed into the background by the more bubbling, pert personality of Victoria. She was given little chance to do anything but follow the lead of Victoria, so much quicker and garrulous. When I talked with her alone she showed resentment against the position into which Victoria had forced her, but did not seem to know what to do except to keep silent and let Victoria do the talking. The general opinion of the authorities at the trial was that Ruby was slow and stupid, but that Victoria was a shrewd young woman whose testimony amounted to something because she got the point at once of what was needed to hurry the trial through so that sentence of death could be pronounced quickly. From my many talks with Judge Hawkins, who presided at the trial; with Dr. Bridges who examined the girls, and with other officials, I believe any unbiased person would have come to the conclusion that this was the basis of their judgment of the two girls as witnesses.
The defense did not ask for severance but was willing to have all nine negroes tried together. The State, however, demanded that they be tried in four separate cases. For the first case, two of the oldest of the boys were chosen by the prosecution. Clarence Norris, of Molina, Georgia, 19 years old, and Charlie Weems, of 154 Piedmont Avenue, Atlanta, Ga., 20 years old, were the defendants selected for the initial trial.
The chief witness for the State was the older of the two girls, Victoria Price, who told the story of the trip to Chattanooga and back from Huntsville, as given previously. She did it with such gusto, snap and wise-cracks, that the courtroom was often in a roar of laughter. Her flip retorts to the attorney for the defense, Steven Roddy, especially caused amusement. The sentiment of the courtroom was with her, she knew it and played up to it, as can be seen by the record of the trial testimony.
The other girl, Ruby Bates, was found by the prosecution to be a "weak witness," as I was told several times by officials present at the trial. The white youth, Orvil Gilley, who remained on the train with the girls, also was considered stupid and slow-witted. The Gilley boy came from Albertville, a small village a short distance from Scottsboro. Judge Hawkins remarked to me about him, saying, "Well, we all know what his family is. Her mother, for instance . . ." and he broke off as if it were too obvious for words what his mother was like. I asked if he meant that the family was feeble minded or of low mentality. "No, not that," her replied, "but . . . well we know here they are not much good." He would commit himself no farther.
From all I could gather later, it seems that the opinion of spectators and officials at the trial that both Ruby Bates and Orvil Gilley were no good because they could not make their testimony fit in with the positive identification of the Negroes and the account of events as given by Victoria on the stand. Victoria told me later that she warned the prosecutor that he had better take Ruby off the stand as she was getting mixed up and would make identifications and answers that did not coincide with those she, herself, had made. The minutes of the trial show certainly that she was the only alleged eye witness of the group on the freight train that testified at great length. Questioning of Ruby Bates and Orvil Gilley was very brief, and the other six white boys were not put on the stand at all.
Dr. M. H. Lynch, County Health Physician, and Dr. H. H. Bridges, of Scottsboro, testified at the trial that the medical examination of the girls made shortly after they were taken from the train, showed that both the girls had had recent sexual intercourse, but that there were no lacerations, tears, or other signs of rough handling; that they were not hysterical when brought to the doctor's office first, but became so later. Dr. Bridges said that Victoria had a small scratch on her neck and a small bruise or two, but nothing more serious was found. The lawyer for the defense, Mr. Roddy, inquired hesitantly and indirectly, in his cross-examination of the doctor, if it were possible to tell the difference between the spermatozoa of a white man and that of a colored male. The doctor answered that it was not possible to distinguish any difference.
Other witnesses put on the stand by the State included Luther Morris, a farmer living west of Stevenson, who testified that he had seen the girls and the Negroes on the freight train as it passed his hay loft, which he said was 30 miles away, and that he "had seen a plenty;" Lee Adams, of Stevenson, who said he saw the fight between the white and colored boys on the train, and Charles Latham, deputy who captured the Negroes at Paint Rock.
Mr. Steven Roddy, attorney for the defense from Chattanooga, was undoubtedly intimidated by the position in which he found himself. At the beginning of the trial he had asked not to be recorded as the lawyer in the case, begging the judge to leave Milo Moody, Scottsboro attorney appointed by the Judge as lawyer for the defense, on record as counsel for the Negroes with himself appearing purely in advisory capacity as representing the parents and friends of the boys in Chattanooga. He made little more than half-hearted attempts to use the formalities of the law to which he was entitled, after his motion for a change of venue made at the beginning of the trial was overruled. It might be said for him, of course, that taking the situation as it was, he felt it was hopeless for him to attempt to do anything much, except make motions for a new trial after the convictions, which he did.
The next day, Wednesday, April 8, Haywood Patterson, of 910 West 19th Street, Chattanooga, 18 years old, was tried alone, as the second case.
In the third case, five of the remaining six boys were tried: Olin Montgomery, of Monroe, Georgia, 17 years old, and nearly blind; Andy Wright, of 710 West 22nd Street, Chattanooga, 18 years old; Eugene Williams, No. 3 Clark Apts., Chattanooga, Willie Robeson, 992 Michigan Ave., Atlanta, Ga., 17 years old; Ozie Powell, 107 Gilmore St., Atlanta, Ga., 16 years old.
It was brought out in this trial that Willie Robeson was suffering from a bad case of venereal disease, which would have made it painful, if not impossible for him to have committed the act of which he was accused.
The most shameful of the cases was left to the last. This was the trial of fourteen-year-old Roy Wright, of Chattanooga, a young brother of another of the defendants. Perhaps because of his youthfulness, the white authorities who had him at their mercy, seemed to be even more vicious in their attitude toward him than toward the older defendants. The may unconsciously have been trying to cover up a sense of uneasiness at what they were doing to a child. Several of the authorities at the trial assured me that he was really the worst of the lot and deserved no lenience on account of his youth.
Ruby Bates and Her Family
As has been said, it is from the most economically oppressed of the mill workers of Huntsville that the two girls in the Scottsboro case come. Ruby Bates. the younger of the two, has a better reputation among the social workers of Huntsville than Victoria. They say that she was quiet and well-behaved until she got into bad company with Victoria Price.
Ruby is only seventeen. She is a large, fresh, good-looking girl, shy, but a fluent enough talker when encouraged. She spits snuff juice on the floor continually while talking, holding one finger over half her mouth to keep the stream from missing aim. After each spurt she carefully wipes her mouth with her arm and looks up again with soft, melancholy eyes, as resigned and moving as those of a handsome truck horse.
Ruby lives in a bare but clean unpainted shack at 24 Depot Street, in a Negro section of town, with her mother, Mrs. Emma Bates. They are the only white family in the block. Of the five children in the family, two are married and three are living at home. Mr. Bates is separated from his wife and lives in Tennessee, according to the report of neighbors, who say that he comes occasionally to see his children.
The house in which the Bateses lived when I visited them on May 12, several weeks after the trial, had been vacated recently by a colored family. The social service worker who accompanied me on the visit sniffed when she came in and said to Mrs. Bates: "Niggers lived here before you, I smell them. You can't get rid of that Nigger smell." Mrs. Bates looked apologetic and murmured that she had scrubbed the place down with soap and water. The house looked clean and orderly to me. I smelled nothing, but then I have only a northern nose.
Out in front while we talked, the younger Bates children were playing with the neighboring Negro youngsters. Here was another one of those ironic touches which life, oblivious of man's ways, gives so often. If the nine youths on the freight car had been white, there would have been no Scottsboro case. The issue at stake was that of the inviolable separation of black men from white women. No chance to remind negroes in terrible fashion that white women are farther away from them than the stars must be allowed to slip past. The challenge flung to the Negro race in the Scottsboro case was Ruby Bates, and another like her. Ruby, a girl whom life had forced down to equality with Negroes in violation of all the upholders of white supremacy were shouting. As a symbol of the Untouchable White Woman, the Whites held high - Ruby. The Ruby who lived among the Negroes, whose family mixed with them; a daughter of what respectable Whites call "the lowest of the low," that is a White whom economic scarcity has forced across the great color barrier. All the things made the respectable people of Scottsboro insist that the Negro boys must die, had meant nothing in the life of Ruby Bates.
Yet here was Ruby saying earnestly, as she sat in a Negro house, surrounded by Negro families, while the younger members of her family played in the street with Negro children, that the Scottsboro authorities had promised her she could see the execution of the "Niggers" - the nine black lads who were to be killed merely for being Negroes.
Ruby's mother, Mrs. Emma Bates, clean and neat in a cheap cotton dress, talked with a mixture of embarrassment and off-handed disregard for her visitors' attitude toward her. She has worked in the mills for many years. She was employed by the Lincoln textile mill, the largest one in Huntsville, some time before the trial. When I saw her she was out of a job, but the neighbors reported that she had a "boarder" living with her, a man named Maynard. They also gossiped that she frequently got drunk, and took men for money whenever she got the chance.
Neither mother nor daughter showed signs of regarding the experience Ruby is alleged to have been through as anything to be deplored especially. They both discussed the case quite matter-of-factly, with no notion apparently, that it had marred or blighted Ruby's life at all. The publicity which the case has brought to them, however, has impressed them greatly. They humbly accept the opinion of respectable white people; it never occurs to them, of course to analyze the inconsistencies it makes with their own way of life. Accustomed to seeing Negroes all around them on equal status with themselves for all practical purposes, and looking upon sexual intercourse as part of the common and inescapable routine of life, they have no basis in their own lives for any intense feeling on the subject of intimate relations between whites and blacks. They have just fallen in with "respectable" opinion because that seems to be what is expected of them, and they want to do the proper thing. There are so few times when they can.
The only strong feeling that Ruby showed about the case was not directed against the Negroes. It was against Victoria Price that Ruby expressed deep and bitter resentment. For Victoria captured the show for herself and pushed Ruby into the background, causing people at the trial to say that Victoria was a quick clever girl, but Ruby was slow and stupid. It was easier for Victoria to talk than to breathe. Words came hard to Ruby. Victoria identified the six Negroes she claimed attacked her with a cock-sure, emphatic manner that much impressed the jurors and the trial spectators. She caught on at once to what was wanted of her -- identifications without any confusing hesitations to slow up the death sentences. Ruby, on the other hand, was annoying from the start because she could not say which ones attacked her. So Victoria with pert, condescending manner, passing looks with the prosecuting officials at such stupidity, told Ruby which ones she must say attacked her, in order not to get mixed up and identify some of those Victoria had previously said were "her six Niggers," as she put it.
Both Ruby and Victoria told me this, in their own words, when I interviewed them personally. Neither one had the slightest notion of the seriousness of what they were saying. The only opinion they had run across so far was that which said the "Niggers" must get the death sentence at once or be lynched. Never having met any other attitude on the Negro question, they both assumed that this was my attitude, and therefore spoke to me as they thought all respectable white people speak.
Victoria Price and Her Mother
Victoria Price was born in Fayetteville, Tennessee. She has been married but says she is separated from her husband. She left him because he "lay around on me drunk with canned heat," she said. She was known at the trial as Mrs. Price, though this is her mother's name, not her husband's. Her age was variously reported in Scottsboro as 19, 20, and 21. Her mother gave it as 24, and neighbors and social workers said she was 27.
Victoria lives in a little, unpainted shack at 313 Arms Street, Huntsville, with her old, decrepit mother, Mrs. Ella Price, for whom she insistently professes such flamboyant devotion, that one immediately distrusts her sincerity. This impression is strengthened by little side looks her mother gives her. Mrs. Price fell down the steps while washing clothes, and injured her arm, which is now stiff and of little use. Victoria says her mother is entirely dependent upon her for support.
Miss Price is a lively, talkative young woman, cocky in manner and not bad to look at. She appears to be in very good health. The attention which has come to her from the case has clearly delighted her. She talks of it with zest, slipping an many vivid and earthy phrases. Details spoken of in the local press as "unprintable" or "unspeakable" she gives off-hand in her usual chatty manner, quite unabashed by their significance. Like Ruby, Victoria spits snuff with wonderful aim.
Victoria and her mother, after some warm argument on the subject, agreed finally to the number of years that Victoria had worked in the mills as being ten. Eight of these years were spent doing night work, they said, on a twelve-hour shift. Victoria is a spinner, and used to run from 12 to 14 sides, she said with pride. "Yeh, I used to make good money. I've made as high as $2.25 a day workin' the night shift before hard times come." Now nobody is allowed to have more than 8 sides to run, and the average is 6, Victoria says. She gets 18 cents a side now, where she used to get 22 cents. "I make on an average of $1.20 a day now, workin' two, sometimes three days a week. Every other week we are laid off altogether. You know nobody can't live on wages like that."
Although Victoria with a sly eye on me to see if I had heard of her record and would scoff, assured me that in spite of her low wage she never made a cent outside the wall of the mill, her reputation as a prostitute is widely established in Huntsville, and according to the investigation of the International Labor Defense, also in Chattanooga. One of the social workers reported that Walter Sanders, chief deputy sheriff in Huntsville, said that he didn't bother Victoria, although he knew her trade, because she was a "quiet prostitute, and didn't go rarin' around cuttin' up in public and walkin' the streets solicitin' but just took men quiet-like."
Sheriff Giles, of Huntsville, said he had information that she was running a speak-easy on the side with a married man named Teller, who lived in the Lincoln mill village and had several small children, but was now running around with Mrs. Price and leaving his wife. The sheriff said he had been trying to catch them with liquor on them, but had not succeeded so far. He said that he had caught the Teller man in her house, however, and had given both of them a warning.
Mrs. Russell, a neighbor of the Prices, claims that Victoria is a "bad one" and has been in no end of scrapes with married men. She was reported to be the cause of the separation of a Mr. and Mrs. Luther Bentrum, and was rumoured to have received the attentions of a man named George Whitworth, until his wife threatened to kill her, and Victoria hurriedly moved out of the neighborhood. One morning after the Scottsboro trial, Mrs. Russell said she saw her lying drunk out in the back yard with a man asleep on her lap. Mrs. Russell is also authority for the statement that Victoria's mother was as notorious for her promiscuity in her day as Victoria is now.
These stories are typical of the sort that circulate continually among the mill workers of the group from which both Ruby and Victoria come. Whether true or exaggerated, they give some idea of the social background of both the plaintiffs in the Scottsboro case. Leaving out of consideration the matter of the conflicting and untested evidence upon which the Negro boys were convicted, and assuming what has by no means been proved, that the Negroes are guilty of the worst that has been charged against them, the question of whether a monstrous penalty has not been exacted for an offense which the girls themselves feel to be slight, can certainly be raised.