On this day in 1952: ‘Scottsboro Boy’ Haywood Patterson dies in Michigan

By: - August 24, 2021 2:14 am

Haywood Patterson via Okitscool via Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 4.0

Haywood Patterson, one of the “Scottsboro Boys” found guilty in a Jim Crow-era criminal trial, died 69 years ago on Aug. 24, 1952.

He was 39. 

The one-time Detroit resident had been stricken with cancer. Patterson’s life ended while serving a separate manslaughter conviction in Jackson, Mich., prison.

Patterson was born in rural Georgia on Dec. 12, 1912, to sharecroppers Claude and Jannie, according to U.S. Census official records, and grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. As a teenager, he hopped freight trains from Ohio to Florida looking for work to help support his family. 

Patterson, along with eight other African Americans aged 12 to 19, was arrested in 1931 in Great Depression-era Alabama. They were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems and Roy Wright. 

The nine were charged with raping two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, in a southern Railroad freight train traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis. 

The boys and men were unemployed and looking for work, got into a fight with white men and knocked them off the train. To get even, the white men reported to local law enforcement that the African Americans had raped Bates and Price, who were thought to be prostitutes. 

The first of several trials were held in Scottsboro, Ala., in the northeast corner of the state. 

Originally, eight of the defendants were sentenced to death by electric chair in 1931. Wright, who was 12 at the time of arrest, was considered too young for that sentence.

The case, which was covered by newspapers across the country, was widely considered a miscarriage of justice and illustrated the racial discrimination that was often carried out by all-white juries against Black defendants in the era. Oftentimes, Blacks were allowed into the jury pool, but kept segregated in the court and prevented by prosecutors from sitting on the jury. 

On May 5, 1933, Blacks and whites marched in Washington, D.C., with a petition signed by 200,000 demanding freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys.”

Patterson was convicted by an all-white jury in the first Scottsboro trial. During his second trial, which was held in Decatur, Ala., in 1933, after his attorney asked for a change of venue, he testified that he had not seen the accusers.

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth Ann Hylton via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

During cross-examination, Alabama Attorney General Thomas Knight Jr., the prosecuting attorney, said, “You were tried at Scottsboro?” 

Patterson declared, “I was framed at Scottsboro.” 

Knight replied, “Who told you to say that?” 

Patterson responded, “I told myself to say it.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on two occasions reversed death sentences for Patterson. The other eight later were freed from prison after Bates retracted her story, saying she initially made the accusation out of fear she would be jailed for vagrancy or prostitution. 

Rape charges and race  

One year before the Scottsboro Boys incident, J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, young African-American men, were lynched by a mob of thousands in Marion, Ind., in 1930.

They were taken from their jail cell, beaten, and hanged from a tree in the county courthouse square. They had arrested that night as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case.

Between 1930 and 1972, 455 people were executed for rape in the United States. In that span of time, 405, or 89.1%, were Black, and 443 were executed in former Confederate states, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

During that period, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia did not execute a white man for rape. 

Yet, together these states executed 66 Blacks. Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky and Missouri each executed one white man for rape during the period, but together they executed 71 Blacks.

Detroit connection

Ultimately, after appeals and four convictions, Patterson’s 1936 sentence was reduced to 75 years. He escaped from the Kilby prison in Alabama on July 17, 1948. 

After he broke out of prison, Patterson made his way north to Atlanta and then to Ohio. Ultimately, he ended up in Detroit, where two of sisters lived. 

Black Bottom Michigan Historical Marker, Aug. 9, 2021 | Ken Coleman

“A cab took me to 1973 Sherman Street, in Detroit, the home of my sister Mazell. My family rushed over,” he wrote in “Scottsboro Boy, a book that he wrote with journalist Earl Conrad. “The day after I got there my sisters cooked a great home-coming meal. The first good meal I had since I was a boy. I tasted beer for the first time. I was 36 years old when I had my first glass.” 

Patterson was living in the Black Bottom community, a majority African-American neighborhood that was in the process of being condemned by city officials to make way for the urban renewal Lafayette Park residential development. 

Between 1940 and 1950, Detroit’s Black community doubled from 149,000 to 300,000 people and was home to the largest local NAACP chapter in the nation. 

De Witt Dykes, an associate professor of history at Oakland University, said that because the Black Bottom community was largely composed of African Americans who operated their own institutions such as stores, homes of worship, and cultural institutions, Patterson would have been able to “blend in.” 

“There were a large number of Black businesses, Black-owned and Black run drug stores, restaurants, night clubs, a concentration of churches of just about every denomination, many of them run by Blacks,” said Dykes. “He would find something similar to Tennessee and that is a Black community that was intact. He could blend into that community.”

However, Patterson was captured by FBI agents in Detroit on June 27, 1950. On July 13, 1950, U.S. District Judge Arthur Lederle dismissed a fugitive warrant against him. 

Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a liberal Democrat, had refused to extradite Patterson. 

“All of the others involved in the Scottsboro case were released from prison some years ago,” said Williams. “I can see no justifiable reason for returning Patterson to prison.” 

While we could not take back what happened to the Scottsboro Boys 80 years ago, we found a way to make it right moving forward. The pardons granted to the Scottsboro Boys today are long overdue.

– Former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley

“I feel great,” Patterson told the Detroit Free Press in 1950. “I want to settle down and be just one of the people.” 

Less than six months after Lederle’s decision, Patterson fatally stabbed Willie Mitchell during a brawl at a Black Bottom bar. He reportedly was trying to sell a copy of his book when the incident occurred. Patterson was later convicted of manslaughter for his role.  

Patterson was buried in Detroit Memorial Park, a Black-owned cemetery, in Warren. 

Clarence Norris, the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, received a pardon from Gov. George Wallace in 1976. In 2013, Alabama’s state parole board voted to grant posthumous pardons to Patterson, Charlie Weems and Andy Wright, the three Scottsboro Boys, who had not been pardoned or had their convictions overturned.

Then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, praised the parole board’s decision.

“While we could not take back what happened to the Scottsboro Boys 80 years ago, we found a way to make it right moving forward,” said Bentley through a statement. “The pardons granted to the Scottsboro Boys today are long overdue.” 


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.