Author shares a dark chapter in state’s history
Denny Abbott was no carpetbagger. Criticizing Alabama did not come easily to him.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Abbott, who had no particular professional goals, graduated from Huntingdon College in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Newly married, he found a job as a probation officer. This entailed checking on juveniles on probation and catching and putting into the county lock-up those who had violated the terms of their probation.
Those juveniles with longer sentences he drove out to Mt. Meigs.
In the first sentence of “They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama’s Forgotten Children,” Abbott puts it this way: “When I was a young man in the 1960s, it was my job to deliver black children to a slave camp on the outskirts of Montgomery.”
Mt. Meigs was supposed to be a reform school, a “training school.” That is, a place where the students attended classes and received at least the rudiments of an education and perhaps learned some useful skills.
Instead it was a concentration camp. Abbott writes there was no effort at education or rehabilitation: “Mt. Meigs wasn’t a school at all. It was a factory that manufactured criminals, using children as raw material.”
Some of the children had committed no crime at all. Some were orphans and some had been declared incorrigible by a parent. County probate judges, often uneducated and unqualified, had the power of gods and few cared what happened to black kids, Abbott writes.
The boys he saw at Mt. Meigs were ragged, many even barefoot. They worked in the fields all day and were even “an endless supply of free, child labor” for neighboring landowners.
Even worse, “virtually all the inmates ... [were] frequently, severely and unjustifiably beaten around their heads and over their entire back, arms and legs with broom and mop handles and fan belts ... ”
At the girls’ “school” there were frequent sexual assaults and at the boys’ “school” “boys in the field were left at the mercy of other students designated as overseers, who forced them into sexual submission.” Some of these sections are difficult reading.
(It is interesting to note it had not always been this way. In 1918 the great pitcher Satchel Paige was sent there and in his autobiography, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever,” wrote that Mt. Meigs was “warm and good.” He got an education and was saved from a life of crime.)
Abbott came to know the Superintendent of Mt. Meigs, E. B. Holloway. Like many of the county probate judges who sent children to Mt. Meigs, Holloway had no college degree, no training for his job, but got along with the power structure. Abbott writes bluntly of him: “he never argued with a white man. He was a true Uncle Tom who shuffled and smiled like a character from an old movie, except he was hardly benign.”
Holloway ignored the savagery and occasionally took part in it himself.
Abbott was horrified. He learned that many complaints about conditions had been ignored or declared unfounded.
Once, in 1963, in response to a newspaper expose, the legislature had sent an investigative committee. The committee report read that “the children looked fairly well clothed and quite well fed and seemed healthy.” Abbott concludes that, to that committee, the black children were “invisible.”
Determined to save the forgotten children, Abbott joined with attorney Ira DeMent and sued in federal court on grounds of cruel and unusual punishment, among others, and won.
Filing a lawsuit against the state of Alabama was a difficult decision for Abbott. A proud Southerner, like his father before him he thought of Yankees as “them,” and he knew how explosive a subject the federal courts were. Many Alabamians would view this move as “treason,” Abbott writes, and “Most white folks really believed George Wallace’s blather about the ‘tyranny’ of the federal government.”
It was especially wrong to go “crying to the Yankees for help.” And always “The whistle-blower runs the risk of having the whistle shoved down his throat.” Many friends and neighbors shunned him for what they saw as his betrayal, and sure enough, he was immediately fired by his boss, Judge William F. Thetford, whom Abbott declares “racist to the core. I can say this without a doubt because I came to know him very well ... ”
As a result of the lawsuit, conditions at Mt. Meigs improved enormously. A new youth facility opened, named, to Abbott’s chagrin, after Judge Thetford.
Abbott ran for Montgomery Public Affairs Commissioner and lost. He sued to get his job back but the judges on the Alabama Supreme Court did not find against Judge Thetford.
Abbott’s career in Alabama was over but, he writes, the past 30 years have been satisfying. After moving to Florida, Abbott has worked with nonprofits like Child Advocacy Inc. and as director of the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, named after the kidnapped, murdered son of John Walsh, who has since dedicated his life to the protection of children. Many will know Walsh as the host of “America’s Most Wanted.”
Mt. Meigs is now a tolerable place, one hears, so why “drag up the past”? Because it is an unimpeachably good idea to tell what happened, so we never forget, so it can’t happen again.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”