By Mike Thomason/contributing writer
The debate about juvenile delinquency is constant, but most of us really know very little about the history of the subject, especially in Alabama. “A Home for Wayward Boys” is an excellent opportunity to change that.
This is a very readable book that tells the story of the state’s oldest school for what we now call juvenile delinquents In 1900 a group of progressive women led by Elizabeth Evans Johnston, known by her friends as “Johnsie,” founded the school, which was named The Alabama Boys’ Industrial School. She was a native of North Carolina who moved to Birmingham with her husband in the late 19th century and discovered that young “wayward boys” were sentenced to the convict gangs of adult males the state leased to mines, mills and timber interests. It was a horrible system, especially for young boys.
Johnsie was a deeply religious Presbyterian who believed God demanded that she end this treatment of boys. She studied institutions in the North and drew up a charter for a state school for boys. It was to be run by a board of seven women (this was two decades before women could even vote) and got it through the Alabama Legislature without amendment. God indeed was on her side!
The Legislature even appropriated a small amount of money, but for many years Mrs. Johnston and her friends kept the school going by soliciting donations. She found and purchased land east of Birmingham and, with donated building materials, the first buildings erected.
There were always more boys than spaces and only the generosity of well-connected men and woman kept the school in business. Added to that were the devoted teachers who often spent their entire adult lives working there, usually for a pittance. In 1905 David and Katherine Weakley came to work, he as superintendent, she as a teacher. She had a degree in education from Peabody and he was trained in industrial education. Like Johnsie, neither was from Alabama; they were Tennesseans. But like her, they gave their lives to the struggling new school, working there for the next 43 years.
The Weakleys would create a school which at its peak during the Great Depression had more than 450 students living in buildings they had helped build, paint and furnish. The students learned trades such as farming, blacksmithing and, later, auto mechanics, printing and carpentry while taking academic courses in the liberal arts, sciences and languages.
Although the boys were sent to the school by judges across Alabama, there were no bars or fences to keep them in. The loving environment kept them from running away. Eventually they had a band, which John Philip Sousa praised and occasionally conducted, and an ROTC-like military unit. Many of the boys later served in both world wars.
It is hardly surprising that the school was chronically underfunded but it managed somehow. Given the laws of segregation it was for whites only, but its example led to the founding of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mt. Meigs in 1911. Both schools were supported by the state’s club women, who were also segregated by law.
After three quarters of a century, changing times caught up with both schools. In 1970 the Alabama Boys Industrial School was integrated and soon a series of major changes came from Washington and Montgomery.
Also, the challenges facing young people became steadily more complex and difficult. The old system of long-term custodial care was scrapped; the children were institutionalized at a younger age and for shorter periods. Instead of years they spent months in such schools. All the vocational programs at Alabama Boys’ Industrial School were scrapped and their education was little different from that of the public schools, to which they would return.
The student population of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School was much smaller, down to less than 100 at any given time by the end of the century. The campus became more prison-like, with cells replacing dorm rooms and fencing surrounding the campus.
In the 21st century, little remains of the once-progressive school. It was not a happy ending, yet perhaps not an ending at all. Since 1981 the school has been known as Alabama Youth Services — Vacca Campus. Senator Pat Vacca was a longtime advocate of the progressive treatment of youthful offenders.
There are some new buildings and a staff of trained professionals working to deal with issues unknown to Mrs. Johnson or the Weakleys. The principal challenges to today’s youth are the drug culture and the collapse of the nuclear family. These problems are a nationwide challenge with little current evidence of a solution.
The book’s last chapter is an excellent overview of historic efforts to deal with juvenile delinquency in the U.S. It is a sobering story, but one we all must learn if progress is to be made. However, there is clearly no alternative to the loving professional care the founders of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School gave so generously in their day. Today people such as the author of this excellent book or Mobile’s own Judge Edmond Naman of the Strickland Youth Center are showing us the way we must go. This readable and well-illustrated book is certainly the place to start.