Subject of Langston Hughes’s 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 Hughes’s 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 Alabama’s 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 defendants—Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright—were 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.


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 Patterson’s 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 Patterson’s 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.


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 irregularities that marred the Jim Crow court: here the Judge presupposed the defendants’ guilt—the female plaintiffs testimony only confirms his presumption. Hughes’s 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 Norris’s 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 Alabama’s 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.

* * * * *

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.

“It’s 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 Legislature’s unanimous passage of this important legislation and Governor Bentley’s signature show that today’s 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

The Wonderful Witches of Oz

As they passed the rows of houses they saw through the open doors that men were sweeping and dusting and washing dishes, while the women sat around in groups, gossiping and laughing.

What has happened? the Scarecrow asked a sad-looking man with a bushy beard, who wore an apron and was wheeling a baby carriage along the sidewalk.

Why, weve have a revolution, your Majesty as you ought to know very well, replied the man; and since you went away the women have been running things to suit themselves. Im glad you have decided to come back and restore order, for doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.

Hm! said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?

I really do not know, replied the man, with a deep sign. Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron.

-L. Frank Baum; The Marvelous Land of Oz

The patchwork girl of Oz  by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by John R. Neill (1913)
The patchwork girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by John R. Neill (1913)

The release of the blockbuster film Oz: The Great and Powerful earlier this month has sparked a renewed interest in the life and work of L. Frank Baum. Best known for his children’s masterpiece The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 screen adaptation starring Judy Garland, Baum authored more than a dozen different novels set in the magical Land of Oz, which took its name from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet in Baums office, labeled for files beginning with the letters O-Z.

Of course Baum was much more than just a juvenile fiction author. As we celebrate women’s history month, it should be noted that the cause of women’s suffrage was supported and advanced byprominentmale figures of the era. Baum, who publicly lobbied for women’s right to vote and served as the secretary ofhis town’s Woman’s Suffrage Club, was deeply affected by his beloved, spirited wife, Maud, and her mother, Matilda, an eminent feminist who collaborated with Susan B. Anthony andpublicized the idea that many “witches” were really freethinking women ahead of their time. In Oz, Baum offers a similarly corrective vision: When Dorothy first meets a witch, the Witch of the North, she says, “I thought all witches were wicked.” “Oh, no, that is a great mistake,” replies the Witch of the North. In sequels, Oz’s true ruler is discovered; it turns out to be a girl named Ozma, who spent her youth under a spell – one that turned her into a hapless boy.

Baum’s contact with suffragists of his day seems to have inspired much of his second Oz story,The Marvelous Land of Oz. In this story, GeneralJinjurleads the girls and women of Oz, armed with knitting needles, in a revolt; they succeed, and make the men do the household chores. Jinjur proves to be an incompetent ruler, and a female who advocates gender equality is ultimately placed on the throne. His Edith Van Dyne stories, including theAunt Jane’s Nieces,The Flying Girland its sequel, and his girl sleuth Josie O’Gorman fromThe Bluebird Books, depict girls and young women engaging in traditionally masculine activities.

The Wonderful Wizard of Ozand its sequels were obviously shaped by Baums wishful revisions of social conflict and are now almost universally acknowledged to be some of the earliest feminist childrens books in America, because of Dorothy and similar characters: girls who are enterprising, ingenious, adventurous, or imposingly self-reliant.

Located within Special Collections at Virginia Tech are several Baum titles that can be found by searching the University’s online catalog, Addison. Among the results are two first editions: The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) and The Enchanted Island of Yew (1903). You are invited to visit us and examine these texts to discover more about the inspiring heroines of Oz.

Love, Life & Work: Advice and Art for the Ages

Title Pages from Love, Life & Work by Elbert Hubbard (East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1906.)
Title Pages from Love, Life & Work by Elbert Hubbard (East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1906.)

At the turn of the 20th century, America was in the throes of a remarkable transformation. The great agrarian society was quickly becoming a mechanically driven economy. Some, however, spoke out against the advances of industrialization, arguing that mass production subjugated workers to machines and that no machine could match the quality of craftsmanship that came from an artists hand. It was this reaction that gave rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Elbert Green Hubbard (June 19, 1856 May 7, 1915) was an American writer, publisher, artist, and philosopher. Raised in Illinois, he met early success as a traveling salesman with a soap company but dropped out of this lucrative career to become a writer and soon discovered the idealized world of Arts and Crafts. Hubbard is most famous for founding the Roycroft artisan community in East Aurora, New York, an influential exponent of Arts and Crafts in the United States.

During his lifetime, Hubbard became well known throughout the nation as a writer, a philosopher and a lecturer. His eccentric and flamboyant style and seemingly non-conformist ideology endeared him to many readers. He was both a reflection of and a reaction to his times, taking center stage in American thought and becoming an icon of popular culture. Hubbard described himself as an anarchist and a socialist. He believed in social, economic, domestic, political, mental and spiritual freedom and his philosophies are clearly evident in his publication: Love, Life & Work; Being a Book of Opinions Reasonably Good-Natvred Concerning How to Attain the Highest Happiness for Ones Self with the Least Possible Harm to Others, a copy of which is held in Special Collections.

Although the text of this novella is readily available in ebook format, there is something special about examining the physical work. Virginia Tech is home to a first edition, published in 1906, bound in soft leather with the title embossed on the cover and representative of the simplified illustration style and handcrafted appearance that characterized the era.

Bookmaking played an important role in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Like other decorative arts, there was a rising concern over the detrimental effects of mass production on book design. Hubbard and his fellow Roycrofters sought to rectify this through their own private press, which emphasized high quality hand production: handmade papers, heavy inking, original typefaces, and designs that looked back to medieval illuminated manuscripts and incunabula and often included elaborate wood engravings.

The text itself is a compilation of thirty short essays on a variety of topics ranging from Mental Attitude to Love and Faith and although Hubbard makes many references to contemporary issues and personalities, a vast majority of his advice is still relevant in modern times. The following are just a few of the bits of wisdom and insight that Hubbard shares with readers:

Character is the result of two things, mental attitude, and the way we spend our time. It is what we think and what we do that make us what we are.

The world bestows its big prizes, both in money and honors, for but one thing. And that is Initiative. What is Initiative? Ill tell you: It is doing the right thing without being told.

To do your work well to-day, is the certain preparation for something better to-morrow. The past has gone from us forever; the future we cannot reach; the present alone is ours. Each day’s work is a preparation for the next day’s duties. Live in the present–the Day is here, the time is Now.

Members of the Virginia Tech community are invited to come visit us at Special Collections to examine Love, Life & Work, other influential texts by Elbert Hubbard, and additional examples of Arts and Crafts style printing and illustration.