Mary Heaton Vorse

How Scottsboro Happened

Published: New Republic, May 10, 1933;
Transcribed: for in January, 2002.

Out of the contradictory testimony of the trial, the Scottsboro story finally emerged. It unwound itself slowly, tortuously. As witnesses for the prosecution and the defense succeeded one another, they revealed what took place on the southbound freight between Chattanooga and Huntsville, and how they happened to be riding on it, and how they lived at home and in the hobo jungles. It was a murky story of degradation and horror that rivals anything written by Faulkner.

The Scottsboro case is not simply one of race hatred. It arose from the life that was followed by both accusers and accused, girls and boys, white and black. If it was intolerance and race prejudice which convicted Haywood Patterson, it was poverty and ignorance which wrongfully accused him.

Victoria Price was spawned by the unspeakable conditions of Huntsville. These medium-sized mill towns breed a sordid viciousness which makes gangsters seem as benign as Robin Hood and the East Side a cultural paradise. As you leave Huntsville you pass through a muddle of mean shacks on brick posts standing in garbage-littered yards. They are dreary and without hope. No one has planted a bit of garden anywhere.

Victoria Price grew up here, worked in the mill for long hours at miserable wages, and here was arrested for vagrancy, for violation of the Volstead Act, and served a sentence in the workhouse on a charge of adultery. Here she developed the callousness which made it possible for her to accuse nine innocent boys. In jail in Scottsboro she quarreled with the boy who remained on the train, Orval Gilley, alias Carolina Slim, and with Lester Carter, the Knoxville Kid, because they refused to testify with her. Orval Gilley said he would "burn in torment" if he testified against innocent boys, but Victoria, the product of the mean mill-town streets, said she "didn't care if every nigger in Alabama was stuck in jail forever."

The chief actors in the trial besides Haywood Patterson, the trial's dark core, were the three hobo children: Victoria Price of the hard face; Ruby Bates, the surprise witness who recanted her former testimony and insisted that she had accused the boys in the first place because "Victoria had told her to"; and Lester Carter, the girls' companion in the "jungle."

On both Ruby Bates and Lester Carter, the jury smelled the North where they had been. Carter offended them by his gestures, by the fact that he said "Negro"–showing "subversive Northern influences." Ruby Bates was dressed in a neat, cheap gray dress and a little gray hat; Lester Carter had on a cheap suit of clothes. Their clothes probably threw their testimony out of court for the jury. The jury, as well as most people in the courtroom, believed these clothes were "bought with Jew money from New York."

Ruby Bates, Victoria Price and Lester Carter among them gave a picture of the depths of our society. They told how the hobo children live, of their innocent depravity, of their promiscuous and public lovemaking.

Lester Carter, just off the chain gang for pilfering laundry, was taken to Victoria Price's house by Jack Tiller, the "boy friend" for whom she had been serving time in the workhouse. Carter was staying at the Tillers'. There would be words between Tiller and his wife, and Tiller would go over to Victoria's. It is interesting to note that Tiller was in the witness room during the trial, but was never put on the stand.

In the Prices' front room there was a bed; behind that was a kitchen room, and a shed, and a yard behind that. Victoria's mother and Carter talked together. Tiller and Victoria sat on the bed. Later they went out. The next night Victoria introduced Ruby Bates to Lester Carter, and the four of them went off to a hobo jungle. "We all sat down near a bendin' lake of water where they was honeysuckles and a little ditch. I hung my hat up on a little limb–" And here in each other's presence they all made love.

"Did you see Jack Tiller and Victoria Price?" Lester Carter was asked.

"Sure. They would scoot down on top of us. They was on higher ground." All four of them were laughing at this promiscuous lovemaking. It began to rain, so they went to a box car in the railroad yards. Here they spent the night together and made plans to go West and "hustle the towns." The girls both had on overalls, Victoria's worn over her three dresses; both had coats, probably their entire wardrobe. The girls were already what Judge Horton had called them in his charge to the jury: "women of the underworld," whose amusements were their promiscuous love affairs, whose playgrounds were hobo swamps and the unfailing freight cars.

Why not? What was to stop them? What did Huntsville or Alabama or the United States offer a girl for virtue and probity and industry? A mean shack, many children for whom there would not be enough food or clothing or the smaller decencies of life, for whom, at best there would be long hours in the mill–and, as now, not even the certainty of work.

With hunger, dirt, sordidness, the reward of virtue, why not try the open road, the excitement of new places? One could always be sure of a boy friend, a Chattanooga Chicken or a Knoxville Kid or a Carolina Slim, to be a companion in the jungle and to go out "a-bummin'" for food. More fun for the girls to "hustle the towns" than to stay in Huntsville in a dirty shack, alternating long hours in the mill with no work at all. Ruby Bates's mother had had nine children. What had Ruby ever seen in life that rewarded virtue with anything but work and insecurity?

In the cozy box car they went on with their exciting plans. Jack Tiller said he had better not go with the girls on account of the Mann Act and the conviction already on record between him and Victoria. He could join them later. So the two girls and the Knoxville Kid went on to Chattanooga together, bumming their way.

Victoria Price had said on the witness stand that when they got to Chattanooga they went to "Callie Broochie's" boarding house, "a two-story white house on Seventh Street," and had looked for work. In reality they had stayed all night in the hobo jungle, where they picked up Orval Gilley, alias Carolina Slim, another of the great band of wandering children, another of those for whom this civilization had no place. Here the boys made a "little shelter from boughs" for the girls and went off to "stem" for food. Nellie Booth's chili cart gave them some, and "tin cans in which to heat coffee." Many different witnesses saw them there in the hobo swamp in the morning. The quartet boarded the freight car which was to make so much dark history. They found five other white boys on the train. Scattered the length of the freight car were Negro boys.

Among these were four very young boys, Negroes from Chattanooga, Andy and Roy Wright, Haywood Patterson and another boy of fourteen. One of the Wright boys was thirteen. These little Negro-boy hoboes stayed by themselves on an oil-tank car. White tramps came past and "tromped their hands."

"Look out, white boy," Haywood Patterson warned. "Yo'll make me fall off!" "That'd be too bad !" said the white boy. "There'd be one nigger less!" Then the white boys got off the train as it was going slow, and "chunked" the Negro boys with rocks.

There is one precious superiority which every white person has in the South. No matter how low he has fallen, how degraded he may be, he still can feel above the "niggers." It was this feeling of superiority that started the fight between the white hobo boys and the black hoboes on the train betwen (sic) Chattanooga and Hunstville.

It started because seven white-boy bums were above riding even on the same train with Negroes. The Negroes decided to rush the white boys. The four very young Negroes were asked to come along by the older boys. The dozen Negroes on the train fought the seven white boys, and put them off the train.

The only decent moment in the whole story was the dragging back of Orval Gilley–Carolina Slim-–by one of the Negro boys, apparently Haywood Patterson. He had pulled the white boy Gilley back on the train by his belt, perhaps saving his life. When asked on the witness stand if he had committed the crime, Haywood Patterson cried in a loud voice–

"Do yo' think I'd 'a pulled a white boy back to be a witness if I'd ben a-fixin' to rape any white woman?"

Gilley then climbed in the gondola with the girls, a "churt car" full of finely crushed rock for mending the road bed. It was in this car that the conductor later found Victoria's snuff box. The four young Negro boys from Chattanooga went back to their former places and sat facing each other. The white boys who had been put off the train complained to the authorities at Stevenson, who telephoned ahead.

At Paint Rock a posse of seventy-five men arrested the nine Negroes in different places on the train. The girls in overalls, fearing a vagrancy charge, then accused the Negro boys of assault.

Ruby Bates, Victoria Price and their companions, Orval Gilley and Lester Carter, were all taken to the jail together. The rest of the story is known.

Observe that this quartet of young people has no standards, no training, no chance of advancement; that there is for them not even the promise of low-paid steady employment. They have one thing only-–the trains going somewhere, the box cars for homes, the jungles for parks. They pilfer laundry, clothes, as a matter of course. They bum their food, the girls "pick up a little change hustling the towns," and it's all a lot better than the crowded shacks at home and the uncertain work in the mills.

Apparently Victoria had come in and out of Chattanooga often. Lewis, a Negro who lived near the jungle, the one whose "sick wheezin' hawg" wandered in and out of the story, testified that Victoria had often begged food "off his old woman." Victoria Price and Ruby Bates are no isolated phenomenon. The children's bureau reports 200,000 children under twenty-one wandering through the land. These two girls are part of a great army of adventurous, venal girls who like this way of life.

For it is a way of life, something that from the bottom is rotting out our society. Boys and girls are squeezed out of the possibility of making a living, they are given nothing else; but there are the shining rails and trains moving somewhere, so the road claims them. The girls semi-prostitutes, the boys sometimes living on the girls, and all of them stealing and bumming to end up with a joyous night in a box car.

The fireman on the freight train was asked what he thought when he saw the girls on the train. He answered "he didn't think a thing of it, he saw so many white girls nowadays a-bummin' on trains." Victoria Price is only one of thousands who put overalls on over all the clothes they own and hit the road; only one of thousands, one who has had all kindness and decency ground out of her in her youth.