Justice for black youths, reparations in Atlanta’s conversations this summerNovelist Colson Whitehead based his new book at Dozier School for Boys, a shuttered institution on Florida's Panhandle. A new investigation has been opened into possible human graves revealed on the grounds by Hurricane Michael. Credit: David Pendered
By David Pendered
The nation’s conversation over the related issues of justice for black youths, and reparations, has its home this summer in Atlanta.
This week, two published authors have added their insights – one a historian whose first day at Emory University was Monday, the other a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who presented Monday at the Atlanta History Center. Meanwhile, remarks continue to resonate from last month’s congressional hearing on reparations – legislation endorsed by Georgia congressmembers John Lewis and Sanford Bishop.
The authors’ two books published this month offer distinct, and complementary, views on incarceration for black teens.
The core issue is the unintended consequences, even failure, of a penal reform effort that dates to the nation’s Progressive Movement. This concept sought to separate youths from adults, and to groom both in the ways of civil society. Advocates portrayed this as a noble effort to salvage both generations before they became trapped in a life of crime. It was harder to implement than imagined.
Emory historian Carl Suddler examines, in Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York, the juvenile justice system following World War II in supposedly liberal New York. Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead explores in The Nickel Boys the ramifications of a juvenile reform school during the Jim Crow era in Florida’s rural Panhandle.
Suddler said he read The Nickel Boys in two sittings, and he offered nothing but praise. Suddler fluently linked the history-based fiction of Whitehead’s novel with the reality he’s portrayed in Presumed Criminal:
- “The opening line of his book is incredible: ‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’
- “It’s a much more common story than we would like to think. On one hand, you see in Elwood’s character that he was trying to move on and genuinely leave the past in the past, as painful as it was on his life. That’s something our society tries to have people do, to get back into life as seamlessly as possible.
- “People who go through this experience are often broken, and that is part of the brokenness. That happens to Elwood.”
Suddler’s Presumed Criminal begins by opposing the popular conception that the harsh treatment of black teens in a southern reform schools was unique, treatment that was unheard of in a northern penal setting.
Suddler contends some in the North and South had similar outlooks on black teens as being threatening persons in need of restraint. Suddler’s treatise takes its place on ground being staked out by modern academicians including Khalil Gibran Muhammed, now with Harvard Kennedy School and a former head of New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Suddler is still in his introduction when he observes:
- “[M]uch of the historical narrative about crime and delinquency before the 1960s tends to focus on the southern criminal and juvenile justice systems whose racist practices prevailed during the long Jim Crow era. …
- “This approach overlooks the urban North as a critical site of production of modern ideas about race, crime and punishment, and it gives a false impression that the history of racial criminalization both started and ended in the Jim Crow South – an assertion that scholars continue to debunk.”
Whitehead’s fictional account benefits from the cultural reverberations of South as a place of brutal prison guards and intolerance for anything “different.” Iconic movies including I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider foster these themes.
Whitehead has said he was spurred to write The Nickel Boys by real-life findings in Florida. An investigation of into unremarked deaths and burials found questionable remains at the actual reform school on which Nickel is based. Dozier School for Boys, now closed, is located on the outskirts of Marianna and was opened as a place to house scofflaw youths and provide jobs in a pine forest where jobs that paid money were scarce. The institute was opened in 1900, a scant 35 years after the end of the Civil War.
Marianna’s footnote in Civil War history observes it was a major supply depot and the largest Northwest Florida town still in Confederate hands before it fell to the Union on Sept. 27, 1864 in a battle that left terrible consequences:
- “It would be decades before the region recovered from the damage inflicted by the raid.”
An engraving on a Civil War monument at the center of town spins a different version of the battle and omits the aftermath:
- “Battle of Marianna. Sept. 27, 1864.
- “Where overwhelming federal forces were stubbornly resisted by a home guard of old men and boys and a few sick and wounded Confederates at home on furlough.”
Dozier’s real-life history isn’t over for the investigation of teen beatings and death – first documented by the University of Florida in the 2016 forensic report that fueled Whitehead’s interest.
Last autumn’s Hurricane Michael revealed 27 anomalies that could be human remains. Florida’s Secretary of State has retained the original research team to evaluate the new findings, plus the entire 1,400-acre school site. Erin Kimmerle, of USF, and her team started work July 15, according to a statement from the secretary’s office.
Both books take as their starting point the prison reform initiatives developed during the Progressive Movement. Progressives sought to shift purpose of incarceration from pure punishment to an opportunity to teach lawbreakers the attitudes, behaviors and sense of responsibility required to live in society. To succeed, it demanded a level of support it didn’t always enjoy from guards through top state officials.
Here’s how Suddler described the experiment:
- “One of the big arguments at the center of my book is this moment, from the ‘30s to 60s, when we see two somewhat opposing perspectives about what to do with juvenile delinquency come upon us.
- “We see a camp that was anticipating a rise in criminal behavior: ‘We have to attack potential delinquency in more preventative ways.’ … We see a camp of reformers lingering from the Progressive era, trying to extend Progressive-era ideals, which emphasized the correction of social ills.
- “Ultimately, the former won out, when we think about what happens in the ‘60s and onward and the birth of mass incarceration.”
These notions of juvenile justice for black teens are incorporated into a statement issued before Congress convened its first hearing on legislation related to reparations. House Bill 40 is titled, Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Amercans Act. It’s purpose, according to the statement, is to create a vehicle to discuss and make recommendations regarding the “legacy of slavery and its lingering consequences.”
Of note, the number of HB 40 was chosen to reflect a provision in one of Gen. William T. Sherman’s field orders. The order is widely interpreted as providing “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves. Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 in Savannah, after his March to the Sea and it provides that:
- “[E]ach family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground … in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
The congressional hearing was convened June 19, in commemoration of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the former Confederate States of America. Witnesses included actor Danny Glover, economist Julianne Malveaux and the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton.
The pre-hearing statement issued by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) observes:
- “Even long after slavery was abolished, segregation and subjugation of African Americans was a defining part of this nation’s policies that shaped its values and its institutions. Today, we still live with racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, insurance, employment and other social goods that are directly attributable to the damaging legacy of slavery and government-sponsored racial discrimination.”