It was raining and fog rolled up from the river. Under awnings and concrete eaves on 11th Street people hid away in pairs, alone sometimes, and watched the rain fall down on the empty downtown streets. They talked quietly and smoked cigarettes. Some of them drank from brown paper bags and looked up at the sky.
The newspaper house churned out smoke and their workhouse bells rang letting everyone know that the world had not stopped. I was walking down the sidewalk with an old stray dog trotting through the rain behind me. He followed me as far as the railroad bridge then ducked down a bushy trail with somewhere else to go. I went on a little ways and walked up the front steps of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.
There were some papers I was to pick up behind the front desk. I also had a man named Haywood Patterson on my mind and thought I’d ask some random person there if they’d ever heard of him. I got my papers and walked out into the dayroom.
It was just after dinner and in a back corner a small crowd had gathered around two men playing checkers. This crowd was huddled over the two checker players clapping their hands and acting up like they were watching a chicken fight in somebody’s back yard. I walked back to their corner.
I watched the checker game for a minute then asked one of the men if he’d ever heard of Haywood Patterson.
“No, I ain’t heard of him.”
“He was one of the Scottsboro Boys,” I tried to explain, but one of the checker players made a quick slick move and the crowd of men erupted in howls and laughter. The other checker player cursed him and I was shoved out of the way by the crowd of laughing men.
That was that.
I left the men alone. I went to sit in a chair near the front door to dry out and wait for the rain to let up. Later, I walked back down the street. I went to a bar downtown and ran into an old friend of mine, a well-traveled girl who usually knows a lot more than I do.
“You ever heard of Haywood Patterson,” I asked her.
“No. Was I supposed to?”
“I don’t know. He was one of the Scottsboro Boys.”
“I’ve heard of them but I can’t remember who they were. There’s a musical called the Scottsboro Boys I heard was on Broadway.”
“Haywood Patterson was from Chattanooga. He grew up here in the twenties and thirties and went to prison in Alabama…”
“Oh Lord. Here you go again.” She pointed at me with her thumb and told the bartender, “He needs a beer.” The bartender knew what I drank, and that was that, too.
I tried a few more times to find someone in town who knew about Haywood and the Scottsboro Boys, but failed just as miserably.
I’d come across Haywood Patterson’s name after finding an old tunnel while walking the railroad tracks around the bottom of Lookout Mountain. If you don’t mind stepping over dead possums or being chased by dogs you can walk the tracks there and find that old cave-like gothic structure. It was built in 1918. Vines and weeds hang down from the top and a big bad-ass freight train is usually rumbling just outside. Hobos sleep in the bushes there.
On the wall just inside the tunnel is old graffiti from the time the tunnel was carved out of the mountain. Names, dates and old caricatures were scratched into the wall by the men who worked there. Intrigued by the old drawings I went to the downtown library and researched the tunnel’s history. That’s where I found Haywood Patterson.
In 1931, the Chattanooga Daily Times said he was “one of the worst young negroes in Chattanooga.” That year, he and eight other “negro” boys were accused of gang raping two white girls on a train that had left Chattanooga.
Haywood was born in 1913. When he was a small child his father moved his family from Elberton, Georgia to Chattanooga in hopes of finding work in the steel mills. The work wasn’t there, though, and the family lived in squalor in what was not much more than a dog shack at the corner of Main Street and Riverside Drive. Haywood quit school after the 3rd grade to help work at home.
When he was 14 he started hoboing on trains looking for work to help out his family. Haywood, as would any young boy, reveled in the scary freedom that came with riding the tracks—not knowing where he was going and not knowing what he’d find. His was the American spirit chug-a-lugging through the dark and hot woods of the South, hoping that in the next town he would find what he was looking for. He dreamed of finding work someday and returning home to Chattanooga smiling and with enough money to take his family away from the animal lives they lived.
But by the time he was 18 Haywood was still looking for work. He and a few other like-minded Chattanooga boys hopped yet another train, still hoping something would come their way. What happened after they caught that Chattanooga to Memphis freight train changed not only their lives but the course of American history. Years later, with the help of a newspaper reporter, Haywood wrote about what happened that day:
The freight train leaving out of Chattanooga went so slow anyone could get off and back on.
That gave the white boys [also riding the train] the idea they could jump off the train and pick up rocks, carry them back on, and chunk them at us Negro boys.
The trouble began when three or four white boys crossed over the oil tanker that four of us colored fellows from Chattanooga were in. One of the white boys, he stepped on my hand and liked to have knocked me off the train. I didn’t say anything then, but the same guy, he brushed by me again and liked to have pushed me off the car.
I made a complaint about it and the white boy talked back— mean, serious, white folks Southern talk.
That is how the Scottsboro case began… with a white foot on my black hand.
Three or four white boys, they were facing us four black boys, and all cussing each other on both sides. But no fighting yet.
We had just come out of a tunnel underneath Lookout Mountain when the argument started. The train, the name of it was the Alabama Great Southern, it was going uphill now, slow. A couple of the white boys, they hopped off, picked up rocks, threw them at us. The stones landed around us and some hit us. Then the white fellows, they hopped back on the train. We were going toward Stevenson, Alabama, when the rocks came at us. We got very mad.
When the train stopped at Stevenson we got out of the car and walked along the tracks. We met up with some other young Negroes from another car. We told them what happened. They agreed to come in with us when the train started again.
Soon as the train started the four of us Chattanooga boys that was in the oil tanker got back in there—and the white boys started throwing more rocks. The other colored guys, they came over the top of the train and met us four guys. We decided we would go and settle with these white boys. We went toward their car to fight it out.
I don’t argue with people. I show them. And I started to show those white boys. The other colored guys, they pitched in on these rock throwers too. Pretty quick the white boys began to lose in the fist fighting. Some of them jumped off and some we put off. A few wanted to put up a fight but they didn’t have a chance. We had color anger on our side.
The white fellows got plenty sore at the whupping we gave them. They ran back to Stevenson to complain that they were jumped on and thrown off—and to have us pulled off the train.
The Stevenson depot man, he called up ahead to Paint Rock and told the folks in that little through-road place to turn out in a posse and snatch us off the train.
It was two or three o’clock in the afternoon, Wednesday, March 25, 1931, when we were taken off at Paint Rock.…
Haywood didn’t know there were two white girls dressed in men’s overalls also riding the train. None of the boys did. The two girls were cheap boxcar prostitutes. One of them was a minor. The girls made up a story about being gang raped by the black boys on the train. We’ll go to jail if we don’t say something, the older girl convinced the younger. The older girl was worried about being prosecuted under the Mann Act, which addressed taking minors across state lines for immoral purposes. When they were discovered they told their rape story to the Scottsboro police.
This is how the Scottsboro Boys trials began. It ended with eight of the nine boys being convicted of the rape and sentenced to death.
Their trials went through the courts for years, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court. One by one, over time and due to national pressure and ridicule, they were released and eventually pardoned by the State of Alabama. But Haywood Patterson escaped before he could be released. He had already spent 16 years in the notoriously hellish Alabama prison system. The hopeful young kid who hopped a freight train looking for work one day had been turned into a prison-bred monster.
His hope and youth was beaten, kicked and starved out of him in those prisons. He was tied up and whipped like an animal. A prison guard once paid two other black inmates, friends of Haywood, to kill him. He was beaten and then stabbed by his “friends” twenty times, puncturing his lung. But he didn’t die.
One night, the night Haywood was originally scheduled to die, he had to watch as another inmate was fried in the electric chair in a nearby room. Afterwards, he was made to carry out the dead body.
Deprived of the company of women, and probably having never been with a woman, he became an aggressive homosexual (“a wolf”) with his own “gal-boy.” He attacked another prisoner with a switchblade for having sex with “his kid.” “He didn’t try to take my gal-boy away from me after that,” Haywood said. “Nobody did.”
His innocence was lost and all his hope was gone. His faith remained in only one thing: “I had faith in my knife,” he said. “It had saved me many times.”
He escaped from prison in 1947. He and a bunch of other inmates were working a prison farm when Haywood took off running through tall rows of corn, then out into the woods. He swam off through snake-infested creeks. He was cornered by three dogs and drowned two of them. The last one got away. He made it to Atlanta then back home to Chattanooga. Eventually he made his way to the home of his sister in Detroit, Michigan.
While in Detroit in 1950, Haywood was involved in a barroom brawl that resulted in the death of another man. He was charged with murder this time, convicted of manslaughter and died in a Detroit prison on August 24, 1952. He was 39 years old.
That’s who Haywood Patterson was. That’s what became of his life.
I was hanging around the library alone one night digging into Haywood’s story when I came across a letter he wrote from a Birmingham prison. He wrote it on October 20, 1937, without the help of a reporter, to a young boy named Bobby. He wrote:
You Have two cute frogs and one is Expecting to Have babies. My How I would like to see those frogs. What sort of things is they? I am happy to Know that you all Have more kittens. And I can imagine How Beautiful they are, especially If they are very playful. Bobby dear, I Can Not Help but to love you awfully Because you seems Most Kind and considerate to the poor Helpless dogs and Kind to all things. you are Heavenly sweet to Have found a Home for the poor lost dog. its good of you and I too Hope that the poor fellow will be nicely treated where ever he are. I feel very Sad for the poor Homeless dog. Honestly I do and am glad you all Had sympathy for Him and founded him a Home mighty nice of you. god will bless you for your Kindness to everything
They called closing time at the library and I went outside. A group of homeless people were on the front steps waiting for all the lights to go out so they could find a spot to sleep in the library’s grass. It was dark outside.
I sat on the steps, too, wondering if I was nothing more than some kind of ghoul dragging up the dead and buried for no other reason than my own ghoulish curiosity. That letter I’d read was none of my business and Haywood Patterson is gone. Nobody else seemed to give a damn.
Why should I?
Still, I couldn’t help it. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked down to the corner of Main Street and Riverside Drive where Haywood used to live. I wanted to see the world from his perspective. Chattanooga hasn’t changed all that much since Haywood lived here. The mountain and river is still here. I wanted to see what he saw when he was a child.
The small shack that he grew up in is not there anymore. Instead, there are red brick housing projects on the corner of Main Street and Riverside now. I stood on the corner there and looked up to my left. The lights from the big houses on Lookout Mountain shone bright and proud. Old barges bellowed on the river and fog was rolling up again. Orange streetlights were smeared against the sky. I walked around the corner to where Haywood’s house used to be and looked into the dark rows of the brown brick project buildings.
I saw people watching me there. Some people I couldn’t see moved like shadows behind cars and trees. People stood under clothes lines that were in every back yard and said things I couldn’t hear. In the shadows behind the streetlights people moved. A few cars started and headlights came on. Everyone knew I was there. People I couldn’t see knew I was there and I was afraid. I was very afraid. Two black men came from the darkness and down the sidewalk toward me. “What you need, boy,” someone shouted from an open window. The two black men kept coming toward me down the sidewalk and I saw another black man coming from the other side of the street. I heard a woman laugh.
I’m a white boy and I knew I had to get out of there fast. I hurried back down the sidewalk, around the corner and out to the middle of Main Street. Once there, I ran. I stayed in the middle of Main Street so people passing by in cars might see me. When I got closer to downtown I ducked down alleys and behind bushes and dumpsters, taking every shortcut I knew to get back to where I belonged.