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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Victoria Price, 1911 - 1982

    Victoria Price on the stand"I didn't lie in Scottsboro. I didn't lie in Decatur and I ain't lied here. I've told the truth all the way through and I'm a' gonna go on fighting 'til my dying day or 'til justice is done."
    -- after her lawsuit against NBC, 1976

On March 25, 1931, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates were travelling in men's overalls, hoboing aboard a Southern Railroad freight train, when it was met by a heavily-armed posse in Paint Rock, Alabama. The posse sought the black teenagers who had thrown a group of white boys off the train. When the two white women said they had been raped by the black youths, the town, the women and the group of black young men and boys became part of the tragic episode in American history known as Scottsboro.

Price grew up in a poor part of Huntsville, Alabama and worked in local cotton mills, when there was work. During the Depression, the mills only employed Price and Bates for five or six days a month. On some of the other days, Price trespassed on the rails, travelling in search of work. She was just one of a vast army; at the height of the Depression, a quarter million jobless young people lived itinerant lives, moving from place to place by hopping trains.

Price had first gone to work as a spinner at age 10, alongside her mother, but after her mother suffered an injury, young Victoria earned all the money they had. Her 1931 wages, $1.20 a day, were only half of what she had been making before the Depression, in 1929. The Hunstville Deputy Sheriff told a researcher for the American Civil Liberties Union that Price supplemented her earnings with prostitution. Other neighbors reported that black men were among her patrons. Price herself insisted that she was virtuous and ruined by the black youths on the train.

When Victoria Price accused six of the nine boys of raping her, she was twenty-one years old, and had been married three times. According to Ruby Bates and Lester Carter, the white young man Bates had met a few days before, Price had been with her boyfriend, a married man named Jack Tiller, two nights before the ill-fated train ride. On the witness stand, Carter testified he'd met Tiller and Price in Huntsville, where they were jailed for adultery and he had been locked up for vagrancy. When they were released, the group met up with Ruby Bates, and the four decided to ride the rails together. Bates and Price spent the night, and had sex with Carter and Tiller, in a hobo jungle, a temporary camp near the tracks that was used by itinerants waiting for trains.

Victoria PriceDefense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz suggested that Price had invented the rape by the black defendants when the train they'd hopped was stopped in Paint Rock. He proposed that Price made up the charge to protect herself and Bates. Leibowitz speculated that the young women feared they would be arrested for vagrancy or for being hobos in the company of the black youths. And he amassed a host of details in his witnesses' testimony to prove Price wasn't telling the truth. But Leibowitz was unable to depict Price as the lying, loose woman he believed her to be. An atmosphere of extreme hostility toward the Jewish New York lawyer and his witnesses had taken hold, so much so that a reporter in the courtroom heard more than one person say, "It'll be a wonder if Leibowitz gets out alive." Despite the many inconsistencies in her testimony, Price captured the all-white jury's sympathy. Denying any acquaintance with Carter, rejecting his story of spending the night in the hobo jungle, and insisting she had been raped by the black youths on the train, Price offered her own explanation of events.

She was an avid talker and told the story of the rape with many colorful details. The rape story she told to grand and petit juries at Scottsboro involved knives and guns with one boy claiming they were going to take the girls north and "make us their women." At the trials in Decatur, she said that "one of them pulled out his private parts and says, 'when I put this in you and pull it out you will have a Negro baby.'"

Price was the star witness for the prosecution, but perfectly uncooperative with the defense. In response to Leibowitz's questions, she would reply, "I can't say" or "I can't remember." When asked if the model train he set up in court was similar to the one they had been riding on she said it was not, the train she rode on was much bigger. Along with his questions, Leibowitz introduced evidence that Price had been arrested for adultery and fornication in January of 1931.

The cases were repeatedly appealed and retried. In 1934 lawyers for the International Labor Defense tried to bribe her to change her testimony, but she revealed the plot to the police. At four trials in Scottsboro, one before Judge Horton, two more in 1933 before Judge Callahan, and four more in 1937, Victoria Price stuck to her story, refusing to budge under cross-examination, and each time the jury found the defendants guilty. After 1937, four of the defendants were in prison for rape, one for assault and four others had been let free. Price was no longer needed to testify and she faded into obscurity. Dan Carter wrote in his 1969 history of the trial, Scottsboro, A Tragedy of the American South, that he believed she was dead.

In 1976 Price resurfaced. Now known as Katherine Queen Victory Street, she was suing NBC for slander and invasion of privacy for the broadcast of Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, a television movie. She had married twice more since World War II and was living in Tennessee. She returned to the witness stand for her suit and told her story for the twelfth time in a court of law. In the end, her case was dismissed by the judge. She died in 1982.

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