Inspiration, Comedy, and Drama in the Department of Geology

About a month ago, I had a chance to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers (Ms1973-004) for the first time. I don’t routinely transfer collections of faculty papers from storage just for my own entertainment, but I’ve been exploring collections weekly as part of a live Twitch broadcast, Archival Adventures, for nearly two years (the full playlist of past episodes is on YouTube and the live show airs Wednesdays on twitch.tv/VTULStudios).

I try to include materials from all of our collecting areas on the show and I thought a geology professor’s papers might contain some interesting things. While the collection did have some interesting geology-focused items (including an envelope of actual rock samples), the standout for me was Cooper’s writing. His speeches, lectures, and creative writing feature a strong narrative voice filled with personality and humor.

Note: There’s also a lot of misogyny and possibly some racism (I honestly haven’t had time to fully read Whisky for the Cat, included later in this post, but some skimming of it made me think there may be some Hispanic stereotyping happening.) Since these are historic documents, it’s not surprising to find these types of sentiments reflected as they were quite common at the time. Knowing about these problems in advance, one can look to see what else the documents have to offer beyond the problematic biases while still recognizing that the problems exist.

First, a bit about Byron Nelson Cooper. He was born in Plainfield, Indiana on August 19, 1912. We don’t have any information about his life before college but we do know that he attended a geology field camp run by Oberlin College before graduating from DePauw University in 1934. According to the Geological Society of America’s memorial of Cooper, this was his first introduction to Virginia geology. He then went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa with both of his theses focusing on the geology of southwestern Virginia. While researching the region, he established familial ties to the area through marriage to Elizabeth Doyne of Pulaski County. After his Ph.D., Cooper was an assistant professor of geology at Wichita University for five years (1937-1942). He then served as associate geologist of the Virginia Geological Survey for four years before joining Virginia Polytechnic Institute as the head of the Department of Geological Sciences in 1946. As head, Cooper led a two-person department to become nationally recognized. He also consulted for business, industry, and local governments throughout Virginia on geological matters, particularly issues relating to water supply. He died on March 26, 1971, suffering a heart attack in his office on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Untitled Speech, 1964

Reading the text of his lectures, speeches, and other writings, it’s not hard to see how his leadership inspired excellence from the Department of Geology. Cooper is an excellent writer, crafting persuasive phrases that retain the audience’s interest. In Box 6 of his papers, there is an untitled speech from mid-December of 1964. The speech is clearly meant to inspire students in the program to work toward their maximum potential. (The last page seems to be an excerpt from another speech regarding campus unrest and student solidarity which is also quite interesting.)

I don’t know what Cooper’s voice sounded like, but I can almost hear him speaking with conviction the lines he has written.

If you live for tomorrow with the objective of
making today’s dreams come true tomorrow, you
begin to pace yourself and to deny yourself small
rewards in favor of engineering bigger things. In
a matter of months one can gain a pretty accurate
assessment of his personal power and of his capacity for
work, and time enables one to not only
play the game but to keep his own side.

Every quarter or semester in a university is
a test of planning ahead. You learn to work,
you learn to meet deadlines, you learn to avoid the pitfalls
of goofing off. You learn how to pilot yourself to avoid
most of the bumps. Each setback only stiffens the determination
to win in the end. The daily lesson is the mind’s food, unless
you feed the mind it doesn’t grow.

Some silly students believe you learn in college
what you have to know + then you go out + use your
knowledge. This just is not so. You leave here with a
bullied and bruised head + many facts though they
be filed in your mind will never be recalled. You
do leave even if its by flunking out –
with an enlarged view – of the world + of yourself.

The great men of history have possessed a sense
of their histories being even as they lived. If
you tie your wagon to a star + work to reach the
goal you have set – you have given your life meaning
but perspective and some historicity – and in the
process if you do so I assure you that you will have
one helluva good time in the best sense of that
phrase.

Really, this entire speech is quite inspiring (if one can get past the students being constantly referred to as men). If offers some great perspective on what is important in the educational experience and acknowledges the fact that not all learning on campus comes from the details learned in the classroom. You can find a full transcription of the speech on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

How to Catch a Genius, undated, likely 1957

While exploring the finding aid, two other pieces of writing caught my attention thanks to their titles. The first is How to Catch a Genius, a play in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. It’s a comedy about a professor (Dr. Claude Sidney Magnabrayne) coming to Virginia Tech for an on-site interview and the unacknowledged and vitally important role that the women of the university community have in persuading potential professors to accept offers of employment despite the clueless behavior of their husbands (Dr. George A. Blurt being an example). Again, this piece is misogynistic in its portrayal of women. It’s also full of stereotypes including ones about politics, brainy-but-clueless academics, stressed-out over-drinkers, and many more. While the play is undated, its portrayal of women and the stereotypes seem to fit the 1950s or 1960s. The play itself gives us a clue about the date being portrayed (if not the date it was created). At the beginning of Act I, there is a bit about a phone number:

                                                                                           As Scene
1 opens, we find Sid leafing the pages in the local phone book for the
Covington, Kentucky Area Code. So he dials 606—-then 5-5-5-­-
then 1-2-1-2. (For those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing, what
Sid is trying to do is find out his own phone number which was changed
recently—as a matter of fact about 26 months ago.)

The important part in dating the item is the parenthetical addresed to “those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing” and the notation that Magnabrayne’s phone number changed 26 months earlier. From the context of the play, it’s clear that we’re mid-20th century. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), the numbering plan we’re familiar with today (1-digit country code, 3-digit Numbering Plan Area code, 7-digit local number) was developed by AT&T in 1947 to allow consumers to dial long-distance calls without operator assistance. The plan began implementation in 1951. The NANPA database also tells us that area code 606 was put into service on January 1, 1955. This tells us that the play is set around March of 1957, 26 months after Magnabrayne’s phone number would have changed from something like “Covington-5000” to the 606 number given in the play. Given the 1957 setting of the play (which is probably also near in time to when the play was written), it’s not at all surprising to see the misogyny and stereotypes present in this piece.

The play itself is a short humorous play that would have been entertaining for faculty since it makes fun of a common experience. We don’t know why the play was written, whether for entertainment or some other purpose. Perhaps it was intended as a fun training tool to help orient faculty to the recruitment process for new faculty. I do find it interesting that the play is centered around recruiting a forensics professor. Forensics in this case is referring to public speaking rather than scientific analysis of physical evidence. Given Cooper’s skill with turning a phrase, this evidence of his interest in the field of forensics stood out to me. I think my favorite part of the play comes in the epilogue when Cooper basically suggests that recruiting Magnabrayne was ultimately all Myrtle Blurt’s doing:

Who can say that Mrs. Blurt may not have rendered the telling
act of consummate kindness in driving Sid Magnabrayne back to his
motel after the power went off. You know she just could have called
the Vice President and asked him to cut the power off and thereby
end those awful Beethoven symphonies. Sort of funny the way that
power came on just as she drove her guest up to the motel. He could
have stalked out of the house and headed back for Covington if that power
had not gone off during the playing of the redundant Sixth. Or perhaps
something she said about Blacksburg just convinced Sid Magnabrayne
that B-burg was the place for his Tillie and their six geniuses.
Remember, Sid Magnabrayne just could be President here some day,
and if my surmises are true, wouldn’t Myrtle Blurt have a reason to smile
knowing that she helped get old Sid Magnabrayne to sign.

The play, with a full transcription, is available on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Whiskey for the Cat, undated, likely 1960s

The last item I wanted to share today caught my eye because of the title. On the finding aid, it just said Box 6, Folder 28: “Whiskey for the Cat” n.d. (no date). How could I ever resist taking a look to see what this item was? What I found is 85 handwritten pages of what appears to be the first chapter of a novel. While the document is undated, I suspect it is set in (and likely written during) the 1960s based on a sentence on page 84: “In the brief span of the seventh decade of the twentieth century man suddenly begins to understand himself and the world in which he lives.”

As with the play, this story is set on a university campus. This time, it’s set at a fictional university in the midwest. While the book chapter is clearly in a crime or detective fiction genre, I notice what seem to me to be small bits of Cooper’s signature humor that poke through here and there. For example, the fictional university is named Enneagh University (pronounced Any University). Again, this work of fiction seems like it would most appeal to someone who had lived and worked at a university, but it’s also well written. Cooper crafts scenes well, providing just the right amount of detail for the reader to be able to imagine the scene without becoming bogged down in details. It does have some outdated language usage such as referring to the faculty and staff of a university as the “indigenous population” of a university town. Today, the term Indigenous peoples is understood to refer to the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic area and would correctly be applied to one of the many Mississippian peoples who inhabited the region referenced in the text.

     Most American universities go into some
level of hibernation during the summer and anyone
who has lived through a summer in the Middle Mississippi Valley
can readily understand why summer is the idling
period of the university year. It is too hot
and sultry in the midwest during the summer for
heavy thinking. The indigenous population in a
university community – the professors and
ancillary personnel who keep the faculty in line
have had it after nine months of intensive
association with students and they need time to
regain a modicum of patience and compassion to
fortify them for the next year. The ancillary
personnel need uninterrupted time during the hot months
to clean up the accumulation of junk, paper, the
cigarette butts with their indestructible cork tips, and the
decorative graffiti deposited on desk tops, toilet stalls,
dormitory rooms, and classroom walls has to
be cleaned off or painted over. The university admini-
stration needs the summer to process its final admis-
sions of new students conduct the on-campus visitations of bewildered
parents who want to examine the environment into which
their John’s and Mary’s will move as unprepared children
(or so the parents think).

Given the length of this item, I haven’t yet had time to read it in its entirety; however, skimming through, it seems that in this first chapter (I have not noticed any point where a Chapter II begins) a university professor and his student endeavor to solve a mystery involving marijuana, organized crime, and murder on a typical American midwestern college campus. There are again stereotypes present in the work, with the professor and student being likened to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. There’s also possibly some racism present in the stereotypes with two criminal characters being Jose Rivera and Steuben Kessel (Kessel being noted in the text as “an alien whose work permit had run out”). But, I get the impression that this story is less blatantly misogynistic than the other works since I didn’t notice it in the portions I have read. A full transcription of this 85 page document is not yet available, but it will be on Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Looking over these three items, I notice a consistent authorial voice while also noting that Cooper can work in different genres and fit into them well. He seems equally comfortable writing a rousing inspirational speech, a situation comedy script, and a detective novel. They each fit their genre well, while still incorporating elements that can be seen in the others. These are just three folders from six boxes of material and I haven’t had time to search thoroughly to find what other stories might be in the collection, but I do hope I can find the time someday because I was very entertained by the inspiration, comedy, and drama I found in the papers of the former head of the Department of Geology.

If you’d like to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers in person, you are welcome to visit us on the first floor of Newman Library. Please note, this collection is housed in off-site storage and you should contact us in advance to request materials be brought to the library for your use.

The Fugitive Author

Robert Burns Escaped from the Georgia Chain Gangs, Then Strove to Abolish Them

Here in Special Collections, we hold a number of books that have altered the course of history. Such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Communist Manifesto, Common Sense, and Walden have all profoundly shaped human thought and history, and all have places on our shelves.

Today, I want to tell you about another book in our collection thatthough not as celebrated as the above exampleshas had a significant influence on the course of events. Robert Elliott Burnss I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is an account of the authors experiences inand escape fromthe Georgia penal system of the 1920s. Burnss vivid description of the systems brutality and inhumanity has been credited with spurring 20th-century penal reforms in Georgia and beyond.

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The Special Collections copy of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, a souvenir edition from Atlantic Citys Steel Pier, is inscribed by the author.

A New York City accountant, Burns volunteered for the army when the United States entered World War I. Assigned to a medical detachment with the 14th Railway Engineers, he served mostly at the front from September 1917, until armistice 14 months later. His service took its toll, and, according to his brother, Robert Burns returned home nervously unstrung and mentally erratica typical shell-shock case. In more recent years, Burns might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Returning to New York, Burns struggled to rebuild his life, expecting that his military training and service would be valued by potential employers. He soon found, however, that his status as a veteran instead proved a handicap in securing employment. Burns arrived at the same conclusion as many veterans returning from that war and others.

The promises of the Y. M. C. A. secretaries and all the other fountain-pen soldiers who promised us so much in the name of the nation and the Government [sic] just before wed go into action turned out to be the bunk. Just a lot of plain applesauce! Really an ex-soldier with A. E. F. [Amy Expeditionary Forces] service was looked upon as a sucker. The wise guys stayed homelanded the good jobsor grew rich on war contracts I went through hell for my country and my reward was the loss of my sweetheart and my position.

Disillusioned, Burns drifted from town to town as a vagrant, alighting in Atlanta in 1922. There, he participated in an armed robbery with two other men. Burns paints himself as a reluctant accomplice in the crime, coerced by the ringleaders trickery and intimidation. The robbery netted the perpetrators a mere $5.80, and the three were captured 20 minutes afterward.

For his part in the theft, Burns was sentenced to six to ten years at hard labor. Expecting to serve his time in a penitentiary, Burns instead found himself designated for roadwork on a county chain gang. Issued a convicts striped uniform and shackled with heavy chains, Burns was transported to one of Georgias many county prison camps.

Burns describes the Campbell County prison camp as filthy and dehumanizing. The endless days were filled with backbreaking and mind-numbing work; frequent beatings by guards; and subsistence-level, sometimes putrid food. The system made no pretense of reformation but instead sought to inflict harsh punishment and exploit a captive workforce.

One was never allowed to rest a moment but must always be hard at work, and even moving in the mass of chain was painful and tiringyet if one did not keep up his work greater terrors and more brutal punishment was in reserve. If a convict wanted to stop for a second to wipe the sweat off his face, he would have to call out Wiping if off and wait until the guard replied, Wipe it off before he could do so.

Dinner came in a galvanized iron bucket The contents of the iron bucket was boiled, dried cowpeas (not eaten anywhere else but in Georgia) and called Red beans. They were unpalatable, full of sand and worms.

Determining that hed be unable to serve out his time in such conditions, Burns escaped the chain gang after several months. Evading his pursuers, the fugitive made his way to Chicago and arrived there with 60 cents in his pocket. He soon secured employment and began saving money. By 1925, Burns had saved enough to begin publishing The Greater Chicago Magazine, and he became a well-known figure about the city. During his rise to prominence, Burns claims, he was compelled by extortion into an unwanted marriage. Soon after he initiated divorce proceedings in 1929, Burns was arrested as a fugitivebetrayed, he asserts, by his estranged wife.

Citing the law-abiding and productive life that Burns had led in the seven years since his escape, a number of prominent Chicagoans helped Burns fight extradition. Assurances of leniency from Georgia authorities, however, persuaded Burns to voluntarily return. Upon arriving in Georgia, Burns found that the promises of fair treatment soon evaporated. Relegated to Troup Countys prison camp, Burns experienced conditions that were even more primitive and cruel than those he had experienced in Campbell County several years earlier.

After 14 months, Burns made a second escape, and he provides the reader with a step-by-step description of his flight. A natural-born storyteller, Burns keeps the reader in suspense through several close calls and daring risks.

Burns made his way to New Jersey, but, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, the success that hed found in Chicago during the 1920s would elude him. Working at a series of menial jobs and living under an assumed identity, he decided to write a scathing indictment against the penal system from which hed escaped. Its now my lifes ambition to destroy the chain-gang system in Georgia, he told a friend, and see substituted in its place a more humane and enlightened system of correction.

Serialized in True Detective Mysteries magazine in 1931, the fugitive’s story gained national attention. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! was later released in book form and became a bestseller. A popular film adaptation, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, soon followed, netting three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for leading man Paul Muni and Best Picture.

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The Steel Pier Souvenir Edition of Burns book features on its end papers several scenes from the film adaptation.

In 1932, Burns was again arrested as a fugitive, but public outcry convinced New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore to refuse extradition to Georgia, and Burns was soon released. In 1945, Burns again voluntarily returned to Georgia and appeared before the parole board, with no less a figure than Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall serving as his counsel. The board commuted Burnss sentence to time served.

Burns died ten years later, but he lived long enough to witness reforms to the cruel system he opposed. The state of Georgia, spurred perhaps not so much by humanitarianism as by embarrassment, implemented a series of penal reforms in the 1940s. In abolishing the use of chain gangs within the state, Governor Arnall cited Burnss story as the impetus behind his actions. Though chain gang systems remained in place in other Southern states, their abolition in Georgia signaled the beginning of an incremental change that would accelerate during the civil rights movement.

In Robert Burns, the chain gang system had perhaps created its own worst enemy: an inmate with the background, eloquence, and determination to attack it. His book caused widespread outrage and sparked condemnation of the chain gang system. It is impossible to gauge the influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! within the context of a wider movement for prison reform, and the book certainly didnt cause the immediate demise of the chain gang system, but it undoubtedly implanted the need for reform in the national consciousness.

In addition to Burns’s book here in Special Collections, the library also holds the film’s screenplay and a videocassette copy of the film.

Challenging and Banning Literary Classics

This week is Banned Book Week(September 26-October 1, 2016), a week in which many libraries, teachers, readers, and their many allies celebrate the freedom to read and the many books which have historically (and still) face challenges and bans by a variety of people, organizations, or even whole countries. The ALA Banned Book website explains that”[a]challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.”

Taking a tour through our British and American literature books, we’ve put together a slide show of 10banned classics you’ll find on our shelves, along with an explanation of what has made each of them the topic of so much controversy and attention. Some books were banned or challenged in a specific place, during a specific time, and/or for a specific reason. Dates in the gallery indicate the year our edition was published. A number in parentheses indicates year the book was first published.

  • Ulysses by James Joyce. First published in serial format between 1918 and 1920, first published as a single volume in 1922. Ours is number 222 of the first 1000 printed.Ulysseswas not only banned for obscenity, it was actually burned in some countries, including the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), and England (1923). It was banned outright in England in 1929; not officially, but unofficially banned following an obscenity trial in the U.S. in 1921; never officially banned in Ireland, but never easily available. In 1934, it was available freely for the first time in the U.S.
  • An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. Banned in Boston, MA, in 1927,following several censorship efforts for alleged obscenity, and a subsequent trial.
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Challenged at a religious college in South Carolina in 1987 due to both language and sexual references.
  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Banned in Boston, MA, in 1930, in Ireland in 1953, and in Riverside and San Jose, CA, in 1960 because of it language and use of profanity, and its central focus on sex, promiscuity and the overall decadence of its characters. It was also burned by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, possibly for the decadence of its characters and/or for its realistic depictions of war.
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Banned for obscenity by U.S. Customs (1929), in Ireland (1932), Poland (1932), Australia (1959), Japan (1959), India (1959), and Canada (1960-1962). In addition, it was bannedby the Chinese government in 1987.
  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. The novel appeared in a June 1929 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, resulting a ban of the magazine in Boston, MA, that year. The novel was banned in Italy in 1929 for its depictions of war actions (specifically those taken by Italian forces); in Ireland in 1939; and, like many of Hemingway’s works, was burned by Nazis in 1933. It was later challenged by school districts in Texas (1974) and in New York (1980) for its discussions and depictions of sex.
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. Banned in a school district in Kentucky (1986) for profanity and language (eventually overturned due to pressure from the ACLU and negative publicity).Challenged in school districts in Kentucky (1987) and Maryland (1991) for language, dialect, and obscenity. Banned temporarily by a school district in Kentucky (1994) for profanity and questions about the existence of God.
  • Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Banned in Anaheim, CA, high school (1978) and an Illinois school district (1984) for use of racial slurs.
  • Brideshead Revisited,by Evelyn Waugh. In 2005, an Alabama Representative proposed legislation limiting the use of public money to purchase books that “recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle” and proposed removing any such books from school, public, and university library shelves.
  • Rabbit, Run, by John Updike. Banned in Ireland (1962-1967) for obscenity, indecency, and promiscuity. Restricted to students with parental permission in a Maine school district (1976). Removed from a Wyoming school district reading list in 1986.

Not every book is challenged or banned for the same reason, but even with these 10 examples, you can certainly see some themes.You can read more about other challenged or banned classics, as well other kinds of challenged or banned books and the reasons behind them online. But, as always, the decision about what to read is in your hands.

Literature in Southwest Virginia

Author Lucy Herndon Crockett wasn’t born in Southwest Virginia, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add her to the list of American writers with ties to the area. She moved to Seven Mile Ford (Smyth County), Virginia, later in her life in 1947, and worked on several books and manuscripts there. Born in Hawaii in 1914, she travelled as a speech writer and secretary for the chairman of the American Red Cross, and served as a Red Cross worker in World War II, spending time in the South Pacific and Asia. This time abroad was a strong influence the books she wrote during and after the war. Crockett was also an illustrator, creating drawings for her books and the books of others. One of her first publications, from the 1930s, was actually a short booklet on decoupage and decoration. Her interests were as varied as her subjects.

The gallery below includes images itemsin Special Collections, including an inscribed edition ofPong Choolie, You Rascal–! and typescripts with Crockett’s edits to published and unpublished manuscripts.

During her career, Crockett wrote 11 books and illustrated many more. Since 2011, Special Collections has acquired copies of all of her authored works(see the list below), though a few are still in cataloging. They should be available soon. Crockett’s audience varied. Lucio and His Nuong and That Marioare related books (Lucio and Mario are brothers) written for children and younger adults. Popcorn on the Ginzo, Teru, and The Magnificent Bastardsreflect her experiences living in Asia after World War II, as well as her other later works, were for adult readers.

 

Bibliography
c.1930s?-Decoupage: The Pleasures and Perplexities of Decorating with Paper Motifs
1939- Lucio and His Nuong: A Tale of the Philippine Islands
1940- Capitan: The Story of an Army Mule
1941- That Mario
1949- Popcorn on the Ginzo: An Informal Portrait of Postwar Japan
1950- Teru: A Tale of Yokohama
1953- The Magnificent Bastards (Later made into a movie- The Proud and Profane)
1957- Kings Without Castles
1960- The Year Something Almost Happened in Pinoso
1963- Pong Choolie You Rascal!
Unpublished manuscript, dated 1972- “Bus Station Blues”

 

You can read more about the collection and Lucy Herndon Crockett in the finding aidonline. You can also visit us to see more of the collection. There are many authors with connections to our area, and Crockett isn’t the only about whom we have papers and manuscripts–we’ve recently acquired materials by and about Sherwood Anderson, for example. However, Crockett is a lesser-known name in many circles. By preserving and providing access to these papers, we can offer a little insight into her creative experience, and hopefully, introduce her to a new audience in a new century.

Subject of Langston Hughess Scottsboro Limited is back in the news.

Scottsboro Limited by Langston Hughes with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. The Golden Stair Press, 1932
Scottsboro Limited by Langston Hughes with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. The Golden Stair Press, 1932

Langston Hughess Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse was published in 1932 by The Golden Stair Press of New York. It was written in response to a legal case, a miscarriage of justice, a notorious and infamous example of injustice in the Jim Crow South. . . that appeared again in the news this week.

On 25 March 1931, nine young black men, aged 12 to 19 were removed from a freight train by police and arrested at Paint Rock, Alabama. The authorities had been alerted by a group of young white men who, after a confrontation with the black teenagers aboard the train, had been forced off near Stevenson, Alabama. Two young white women, mill workers from Huntsville, were also taken from the train at Paint Rock. When in the custody of the police, the two women reported that they had been raped aboard the train by the young black men. A mob gathered that first evening in Scottsboro, but Alabamas governor, Benjamin Miller, ordered the National Guard to prevent the mob from lynching the young men.

Twelve days later, what became known as the trials of the Scottsboro Boys began. The defendantsOlen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wrightwere divided into four groups and four separate trials were held. Five days later, eight of the nine had been convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries. Roy Wright, the youngest of the nine, had been found guilty, but only eleven of the twelve jurors voted for the death penalty, even though the prosecution had requested a sentence of life-in-prison. Executions were scheduled for 10 July, the earliest possible date, according to law.

Justice

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Langston Hughes, from Scottsboro Limited

Over the next seven years a series of trials occurred that involved state and federal courts. Twice, cases were appealed before the U.S. Supreme Court. In November 1932 the Court ordered new trials for all the defendants, ruling that the right of the defendants to retain competent legal counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause had been denied by Alabama. In Haywood Pattersons second trial, which took place in April 1933, Ruby Bates testified that she and Victoria Price had made up the accusations of rape to deflect attention from their own violations of the law. Physical evidence was also introduced that lent credence to the testimony that no rape had taken place. Patterson was again found guilty and sentenced to death.

In April 1935, the Court, hearing arguments in the Patterson and Norris cases, held that the system of jury selection in Alabama that excluded African-Americans was unconstitutional. Convictions were again reversed. The state chose again to prosecute, and by January 1936, Haywood Pattersons fourth trial had begun. He was again convicted and given a 75-year sentence. After testifying at the trial, Ozie Powell was shot in the head by a sheriffs deputy while riding in the backseat of a car following an argument between the two men and an attack by Powell with a penknife that seriously injured the deputy. Powell was handcuffed to Clarence Norris and Roy Wright at the time. Though he survived, Powell was seriously disabled. The sheriff said that Powell was trying to escape.

The poem, Scottsboro was first published in the December 1931 issue of Opportunity:

"Scottsboro," a poem by Langston Hughes from Scottsboro Limited.
“Scottsboro,” a poem by Langston Hughes from Scottsboro Limited.

Scottsboro

8 Black Boys in a Southern Jail.
World, turn pale!

8 Black Boys and one white lie.
Is it much to die? . . .

 
 
 
 
Hughes spent much of the fall of 1931 writing about the Scottsboro case and visited Kilby Prison in Montgomery where eight of the nine young men were held in early 1932. His short verse drama, Scottsboro, Limited, had first been published in the October 1931 issue of New Masses and then republished in 1932, along with his four Scottsboro poems and illustrations by Prentiss Taylor in the Golden Stair Press edition (a copy of which is displayed here and is among the holdings at Special Collections). The play opened in Los Angeles in 1932 and was later performed in Paris and Moscow. Writing in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, Nicole Walingora-Davis describes the play in the following terms:

Hughes offers a caustic description of the collusion of the court with mob violence in Scottsboro, Limited. His compactly staged trial sequence captures the lethal efficiency of the Jim Crow court. By eliminating the prosecutor, defense attorney, and any evidence, and by interpolating the audience into the jury, Hughes stresses the cumulative effect of the procedural irregularites that marred the Jim Crow court: here the Judge presupposed the defendants guiltthe female plaintiffs testimony only confirms his presumption. Hughess concluding call to interracial solidarity and a revolutionary labor movement among black and white laborers functioned like an anthem in his writings, and sought to promote social and economic justice.

By the time Clarence Norriss third trial began on 12 July 1937, seven of the Scottsboro nine had been in prison for six years. By Wednesday of that week, Norris was again sentenced to death. Next to be tried was Andy Wright, who received a sentence of ninety-nine years. Charles Weems, whose sentence was delivered on 24 July, was given seventy-five years. Also that summer, all charges against Willie Robertson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright, the youngest of the group, were dropped. The five others remained in Alabama prisons. Weems was paroled in 1943. Powell and Norris in 1946. After a parole violation, Andy Wright received parole in 1950. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, and, after publishing a book while still a fugitive, was arrested by the FBI in 1950. The governor of Michigan refused Alabamas request for extradition. Clarence Norris published his own book, The Last of the Scottbsoro Boys, in 1979. He died ten years later, truly the last of the group of nine, on 23 January 1989.

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But this post started by saying that the Scottsboro Boys were back in the news. Indeed. On 19 April 2013, the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, signed House Joint Resolution 20, passed by the Alabama legislature on 4 April. The resolution formally exonerates all nine of the Scottsboro Boys. The signing ceremony was held at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.

Its important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys, Governor Bentley said in a statement. This is the result of a bipartisan, cooperative effort, and I appreciate everyone who worked together to make this legislation a reality.

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard added, The Legislatures unanimous passage of this important legislation and Governor Bentleys signature show that todays Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago.

From Scottsboro Limited, the first pages of the play by Langston Hughes
From Scottsboro Limited, the first pages of the play by Langston Hughes in the 1932 edition