Atlanta journalist spotlights stories of violence at Alabama's Mt. Meigs
The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, located in the Mt. Meigs community of Montgomery, opened in 1947. At that time, it was intended to be a place where troubled Black kids could go instead of prison with adults. But to many Black children, it became a place where nightmares played out in real life: beatings, sexual assaults and torture were regular occurrences. It was less about reform than a new kind of slavery, one with echoes in 21st-century American life. What happened to those kids at Mt. Meigs is the subject of a new podcast reported and hosted by Atlanta-based journalist Josie Duffy Rice. It's called Unreformed.
Josie Duffy Rice spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: Tell us about how the idea for this podcast came to be.
Josie Duffy Rice: The idea from this podcast really came from Virginia Prescott in her new role at School of Humans.
Peter Biello: Virginia Prescott is a former host here at GPB and School of Humans is the production company behind Unreformed.
Josie Duffy Rice: And she reached out to me about two summers ago and said there is a story about a man named Lonnie Holley, a famous artist here in Atlanta, and a school he went to as a child. This was like kind of the post-George Floyd era: a time when if you cover criminal justice, you are getting a lot of emails about a lot of things. But this one immediately stood out to me. There was something about the story that I felt really tied to. And so that's how we basically spent the past year and a half looking into it.
Peter Biello: So this started with the story of Lonnie Holley. Can you tell us a little bit about who he is?
Josie Duffy Rice: Lonnie Holley is an artist originally from Alabama. He lives here in Georgia now. He's a self-taught artist and his work has been in the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery, the Smithsonian. It's here at the High [Museum of Art in Atlanta]. He's an incredible, incredible artist. But before he was an artist, he was an 11-year-old child who had been separated from his family, was living with virtual strangers and was out past curfew one night and was picked up by the police, sent to jail and then shipped off to Mt. Meigs, what was then known as the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. And what he endured there was abuse and harrowing conditions that have haunted him for the past 50 years. And so this is kind of our attempt to help tell that story.
Peter Biello: The story is about how the school essentially wasn't really about reform. The school for Black kids didn't have any teachers, really, whereas schools for white kids at that time were actual schools with actual funding and actual instruction.
Josie Duffy Rice: The difference between these kind of quote-unquote "juvenile reformatory" is the Black one was for free labor. It was basically a place where kids were sent out in the morning and told that when they got back, they better have 100 pounds of cotton in their sack. And this is the 1960s, not the 1860s. This was functionally a slave plantation. And we hear people call it a penal colony, a kiddie prison. All of those terms apply. The only term that doesn't apply is "school."
Peter Biello: And it sounds similar to places like the one described in Colson Whitehead's novel The Nickel Boys, the Dozier School in Florida, and also sounds similar to "schools" for Native Americans where hundreds of Native American children were killed.
Josie Duffy Rice: I think that what's really important about Mt. Meigs is a couple of things. One: its place, its literal geographic place — in the 1960s. This is Montgomery, Ala. This is Rosa Parks getting arrested on the bus, right? This is Martin Luther King marching through the state. This is George Wallace. And so in the midst of that, just miles away, are kids on a plantation being abused with no one to help them. And it's not just Mt. Meigs. It's not just the Dozier School. There is a recent one in Missouri called the Agape School there. There are places that exist then and now. And so we are uncovering this particular one and hopes that it will lead us to not only uncover more about Mt. Meigs, but uncover more about the other institutions like this which exist throughout the country.
Peter Biello: You've asked listeners to the podcast to reach out with their stories if they've been to Mt. Meigs or places like it. What have you heard from people reaching out to you?
Josie Duffy Rice: I've heard a variation of things. I've heard [from] a couple of people who said "I went there...And it's haunted me ever since." Those have come in the past couple of days. But we've also heard from people who they heard about it from their uncle or their dad or their grandfather. They always knew about this place called Mt. Meigs, but they never really knew what went on there because they didn't talk about it. And we've also, interestingly, heard from people who have worked there, who have been prosecutors who sent kids there, who have helped this infrastructure continue because remember, Mt. Meigs exists today.
Peter Biello: What's the state of Mt. Meigs today?
Josie Duffy Rice: The short answer is we don't really know. The state of Alabama, was not interested in having us on the Mt. Meigs campus, as you may not be shocked to hear. And it's a black box, basically. It's very difficult to get information about how it's operating. I want to be clear that I don't think Mt. Meigs today is what it was in the 1960s. I don't. That was a special kind of horror. But I also don't think it's great. I just talked to someone yesterday who was there six months ago and said it's a pretty dismal place. And so it really kind of exists in that middle ground between, "Well, we're not what we were, but we're certainly not a place that anybody would want their children to to be sent to."
Peter Biello: Has the state of Alabama ever owned up to what happened to the kids?
Josie Duffy Rice: They really haven't, other than being kind of court-mandated to own up to it in the late 1960s, in the sense that they challenged the court case they lost. And that was kind of the owning up that was done. But no, there has been no apology. There has been no acknowledgment. There's been no attempt to kind of reach out to the kids who went there. There's really been no attempt, it seems, to even maintain records of who went there. Many of these voices are just lost to time. And that's one of the things that I think haunts us.
Peter Biello: What do you hope listeners take away from this podcast?
Josie Duffy Rice: I think two things are really my focus. The first is I think it's important for us to witness, to bear witness to what these survivors are telling us. This is our history. It Is not that long ago. And we see right now such an effort to avoid learning about history, especially learning about Black history. And this is not just Black history. It's also white history. But the second thing I want people to take away — and this might sound incongruous given the topic — is I do think this is a hopeful story. I do think in a lot of ways it is a testament to human resilience, the capacity for people to change and the ability for people to be willing to speak about something like this even decades later. The bravery, the courage it takes is unmatched. And I come away from this podcast feeling not devastated by the human condition, but hopeful about it.
The team behind Unreformed is looking for more survivors of Mt. Meigs and other institutions like it. You can reach out to them by email: email@example.com.