Victoria Price, accuser and star witness in the Scottsboro Boys trials that took place in Decatur, is among those believed to have stayed in this former boarding house during the 1933 proceedings. The building was recently purchased by the board of CEOTA (“Celebrating Early Old Town with Art”) and a fundraising effort is underway to support its renovation and reopening as the Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA Civil Rights Museum.
CEOTA is the passion project of Decatur artist Frances Tate, a “dedicated community leader and activist” who grew up in Old Town. After retiring from a career in telecommunications, she went back into the field as an equipment auditor, and took note during her travels of the varied ways in which American communities “preserved and promoted their heritage.” Inspired by what she had seen, she poured a lifelong passion for art into reviving the legacy of Old Town through a series of watercolor paintings.
“Old Town is sitting on the Tennessee River… I think of that as bringing unity to the community. All of it works together. That was my concept of using the water from the Tennessee River, the unity that it brings… We’re trying to create a legacy that will last and flow forever… The Tennessee River, it never stops flowing… And this is our main resource in the city. So why not use it?”
Just north of the CEOTA building, at 111 Church Street, is the former home of Galileo “Leo” Sykes, a legally blind veteran of the First World War who was floated as a prospective juror by attorneys for Scottsboro defendant Haywood Patterson. His father, Solomon S. Sykes, was born a slave in 1856 and had died “a respectable and prominent businessman and landowner” a decade before the start of the Patterson trial.
Leo’s brother, dentist and former Negro League pitcher Frank Jehoy “Doc” Sykes, was among those called to provide a list of eligible black jurors, reading out 112 names and affirming under oath that none had ever been called for jury duty. He also hosted “several Northern black reporters” in his home during the trial.
As a result of his involvement in the Patterson trial, Doc Sykes endured “several death threats” and “cross burnings on his front lawn.” At one point, he was forced to make “a high speed getaway while being chased by a car full of Klansmen.” The white backlash was so severe that, in 1937, he left Decatur with his family and moved to Baltimore.
“In Old Town, the people was traumatized during the whole trial… For three years, people were scared to go out of their houses, not knowing if they’re gonna be cut down and shot. The Klan rampaged the neighborhood up and down, just shooting up the neighborhood… Those people’s livelihoods depended upon the white man. You’ve got to understand that. They were afraid to talk against it.”
To learn more about the Scottsboro Boys-CEOTA Civil Rights Museum, visit the SBC Museum Project website. To visit the next tour stop, head east from the Leo Sykes house to the end of Church Street and tap the button below.