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Stonewall Jackson secrets: ‘Children against monsters’

CONCORD The once-grand brick dormitories of the old Stonewall Jackson Training School have fallen into disrepair, overgrown, crumbling relics abandoned so many years ago that vultures are roosting inside an open dormer window.

The place looks haunted.

And no wonder, say men who claim they were physically and sexually brutalized by caretakers while locked up at the juvenile detention facility during the 1940s to 1960s.

Back then, boys as young as 7 were taken from their families and sent to Stonewall Jackson for petty wrongdoings such as skipping school or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk and for more serious crimes such as stealing cars and breaking into stores.

Others were guilty of nothing more than being hungry or orphaned.

They are grown men now, their hair graying, their faces lined, some with successful careers to reflect on, others still struggling with the law or with alcohol or both, all with the same chilling memories of the training school.

Three years ago, a chance discovery on the Internet brought them together.

Jerry Moore, who paints houses in Black Mountain, had just bought his first computer, and he Googled “Stonewall Jackson Training School.” Up popped a UNC Chapel Hill website with a grainy black-and-white photograph of boys cultivating a corn field at the school in 1937. Linked to that was another website with a glowing description of Stonewall Jackson.

Moore, 60, was so upset by what he read, he broke years of silence and posted a comment: “I remember severe cruelty.” He accused his adult caretaker of hitting him in the face, kicking him in the ribs and slapping his penis with a rubber strap.

Other men found Moore’s lament and added their own, launching a painful conversation that continues today.

Through the UNC website, then on Facebook, and eventually by phone, the men have formed a fraternity of sorts of “former inmates” who understand one another’sdemons. The distrust. The anger. The alcoholism. For some, it’s meant a few tentative steps toward healing and self-discovery that might not have happened otherwise.

“People who have never seen blood dripping off the toes of children will never understand what we feel,” said John Pate, 83, who grew up poor near Goldsboro in Eastern North Carolina. He said he committed no crime but was locked up at Stonewall Jackson from 1940-1945 on the advice of a neighbor who assumed he would be better off living there than in poverty and squalor with his father.

Though nearly 70 years have passed, Pate said he still suffers from the trauma.

Children vs. monsters

Waitsel Beard, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Lenoir, wept when he described how a cottage parent broke up a fight between two boys in 1965.

“He grabbed each one of them by the collar, and he rammed their heads together two or three times,” Beard said, choking back tears. “It sounded like cantaloupes popping.”

Beard, 62, said many boys deserved to be punished, but instead they were tortured. “When you slap a 13-year-old in the face, bust his eyes, ... rub his nose in urine, stuff like that, it’s sadistic.”

The men aren’t seeking reparations, and legal experts said it’s unlikely they would prevail on any claim – it took a special act of the Legislature this year to approve compensation for victims of state-enforced eugenics.

But the men who agreed to be interviewed believe the public should be aware of the savage beatings young boys endured or witnessed at the hands of the state – similar, they said, to the atrocities at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle city of Marianna, where this year graves were excavated to see if anyone was murdered.

“We were children, coming up against monsters,” Moore said about Stonewall Jackson. Until now, he said he told only a few people, partly out of embarrassment, partly because he didn’t think anyone would believe him.

“It excites me a little bit,” he said, “that the truth is finally coming out.”

Thousands of boys were sent to Stonewall Jackson over the years – as many as 500 lived on campus at any one time, and there’s no way to determine how widespread abuse might have been. Karin Zipf, associate professor of history at East Carolina University, has written two books about North Carolina reform schools and said brutality wasn’t limited to Stonewall Jackson.

“Sometimes it got nasty in the state reformatories,” Zipf said. “Boys, girls, parents and teachers have told stories of brutal beatings, solitary confinement and psychological abuse. Because the juvenile court system in North Carolina did not encourage accountability or due process, officials could inflict brutal punishments almost willy-nilly.”

According to state documents, vasectomies were performed on six boys at Stonewall Jackson in 1948.

Mission to save children

The incongruity between what the men said happened and what was supposed to happen is startling.

Stonewall Jackson, named for the Confederate general, was the first detention center in North Carolina, pushed for by reformers who thought children should not be housed with adult prisoners. These so-called “child savers” demanded a separate juvenile justice system.

Newspaper editor James Cook of Concord became an advocate after witnessing a 13-year-old orphan sentenced to 31/2 years of hard labor on an adult chain gang for stealing $1.30. Cook was instrumental in the location of the school off N.C. 49 in Concord.

When Stonewall Jackson opened in 1909, it promised “a chance to the boys of the state who need its care and direction.”

“Funny how such good intentions can get bent all to hell,” wrote John Dollard of Asheville, who was sent to the school in 1964. “Imagine if your 10-year-old son was slapped to the ground by a grown adult and kicked senseless, or had to fight off sexual predators. ... What if they had to live in constant fear they are going to do the wrong thing or never see their mother or father again. ...

“By the way, the only crime I committed was not having a home and (having) an alcoholic father who couldn’t get over World War II. Nobody is ever going to understand the kind of dent Jackson Training School put in my soul.”

In 1969, Dollard said he was hunkered down with other soldiers in a bunker in Vietnam, the enemy firing at them. “All these guys were scared to death, and one of the other soldiers asked why I wasn’t afraid of dying,” Dollard said. “I told him I had been to Stonewall Jackson Training School.”

‘Very sadistic’

The renamed Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center continues to operate from newer buildings on the back side of the original campus. The center, which is run by the N.C. Department of Public Safety, is set away from the highway and enclosed behind barbed-wire fences because many youth housed there committed violent or serious crimes.

At its grandest, Stonewall Jackson encompassed nearly 1,000 acres of rolling farmland, including two lakes, one now a part of Frank Liske Park. The setting was bucolic – and it still is.

Up front on the former, shuttered campus, along a rocky ridge facing Old Charlotte Road, a row of dilapidated red-brick Colonial-Revival-style dormitories look so eerie, they have attracted a cult-like following. People have sneaked in and posted photographs online, fueling a growing interest in the school.

The buildings were designed by Charlotte architect Louis Asbury to be “family-like” settings, where cottage parents were supposed to assume the roles of mother and father to 25 or more boys. Some couples were caring and empathetic, the men said, but others were vile.

There were no fences, and the Observer regularly published stories about runaways. The worst beatings, the men said, occurred after boys ran away. When they were captured, they said, they were forced to lie naked across a bench.

“Three grown men took their time to beat you so bad you almost passed out,” Dollard said. “... It was beyond pain.”

One man who did not want to be identified said he still has the scars to prove it.

Half of each day, boys attended class; the other half, they worked in the fields and orchards or learned trades such as repairing shoes, cutting hair or fixing machines.

Though Wiley Lankford of Jacksonville, N.C., acknowledged being beaten many times during one year at Stonewall Jackson in the 1960s, he said he never ate better, thanks to an abundance of meat and vegetables from the self-sustaining farm. Having grown up poor in Winston-Salem, one of nine children, Lankford said he is still grateful for the food.

But that’s all.

“It was a horrifying experience,” said Lankford, 61, a truck driver. “To this day, I don’t trust people.”

‘It will never go away’

Over the years, there were unsettling reports about the school.

Critics in the 1940s claimed it was little more than a working farm that depended on child labor.

In 1972, a study by a committee of the N.C. Bar concluded that the state’s eight training schools had become a “dumping ground for unfortunate children” and recommended an overhaul of the criminal justice system. The committee was impressed by most cottage parents, but said some were not equipped for the job by temperament or training, and some were emotionally unstable. The committee also cited incidents of older children “forcing themselves” on younger children at night.

At the time, North Carolina ranked first among states in the number of children sent to training schools per capita. Half of the children, the report said, should never have been locked up.

Two years later, James Tompkins of Huntersville, then director of the Child Advocacy Commission, wrote an explosive paper based on his visits to Stonewall Jackson and four other schools.

“Children are beaten, choked, slapped, verbally assaulted, sexually assaulted and required to experience long periods of solitary confinement,” Tompkins wrote. State officials said reforms had been made and denounced the report as “outdated.” Tompkins resigned under fire and took a job teaching special education at Appalachian State University. He is now retired.

What the men are saying doesn’t surprise him – or the fact that they still suffer.

“Those who are treated most abusively will live with it for the rest of their lives,” Tompkins said. “It will never go away.”

Some caretakers displayed sensitivity and kindness, he said. But he was stunned at “the open and unchecked aggression against children.”

It’s impossible to say whether boys who grew up to be criminals, alcoholics and drug addicts turned out that way because of cruelty they endured at Stonewall Jackson or whether they would have ended up that way regardless.

And it shouldn’t matter, Tompkins said. No child should be beaten, especially while under the care of the state.

Tompkins is 78 and doesn’t remember specifics about each school, but he hasn’t forgotten one.

“Stonewall was a nightmare,” he said. “It was out of the twilight zone.”

‘I’m sorry’

The men’s descriptions have prompted tense online exchanges with children of former caretakers.

“Who cares? Get over it,” one woman wrote after a post by John Pate.

“Right, that was 72 years ago. Move on with life,” added another woman.

“As long as my parents were cottage parents ... there were no bad things that happened to my knowledge,” wrote Kaye Cheek Cook of Southport. “Certainly no boy was mistreated.”

Cook’s father and mother were cottage parents in the 1950s and ’60s, and she defended Stonewall Jackson and the people who worked there. She said her parents were Christian and believed working at the school was a calling. “I’m not saying my daddy never spanked a kid,” Cook said in an interview. “My daddy spanked me, too.”

A former clinical worker, who took a job at Stonewall Jackson after the reforms in the mid-1970s, accused the boys themselves of provoking a lot of the trouble. The woman, who asked not to be identified, cautioned that their accounts should be taken in the context of the times, when corporal punishment was allowed.

But she added, “If anyone was brutalized, somebody needs to say ‘We’re sorry.’”

And because no one has, she said it: “I’m sorry.”

Struggling to forgive

Beard preaches forgiveness in sermons on Sunday mornings, but he said he harbors feelings of revenge toward former cottage parents, most of whom are dead. One administrator, whom the men described as especially cruel, is in a nursing home.

“I would really like to take a stick and give them a whipping,” Beard said, “just beat the devil out of them.”

Pate said he, too, has struggled to forgive. He retired from a career in sheet metal design and fabrication and splits his time between homes in California and Idaho.

“I have been told I should be grateful,” Pate said. “I should be grateful – nobody wanted a half-starved, illiterate, snotty-nosed little kid, not even my family. But an innocent child – and I was an innocent child – doesn’t deserve to be mistreated. The children at Stonewall Jackson were supposed to be fed, clothed and taught reading, writing, arithmetic – not have the living hell beat out of them.”

Pate assumed that conditions improved after he left, that there were few others alive who would understand. And so for 70 years, he kept the nightmare of Stonewall Jackson mostly to himself. He did not tell his first wife. He didn’t tell his five sons.

Who would believe him?

Talking with the other men has brought not only tears, he said, but also a long-overdue healing of the scars of a broken childhood.

Leland: 704-358-5074
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