I live in Tampa Bay, Florida and I remember when The Dozier School for Boys was closed. I remember when they found the graves, and I remember when the unmarked graves were discovered and had to be explored and dealt with. Even as recently as 2019 they were still working there. My sister-in-law and her husband met each other while they were working there as a psychologist and guard respectively. At the time I was horrified at what I was hearing and seeing on the news, but it’s 2020 now and over the years I have come to understand that this was probably not an isolated occurrence. There are probably similar juvenile detention facilities scattered around the southern states that have graves and atrocities yet to be discovered.
What I really liked about The Nickle Boys, more than The Underground Railroad, was that it was more real to me. The characters were fictionalized, but the circumstances that brought them all to the Nickel School were real ways that black boys and men would get caught up in the system. The main character Elwood is on his way to take a college course in his last year of high school when he accepts a ride from a man who is heading toward the campus. The man has actually stolen the car, and so Elwood is charged with car theft as well for being in it and sent away to Nickel after his conviction. This happens despite the mountains of evidence that would have proved his innocence, but in the 1950s south that was a moot point.
The horrors that Elwood witnesses and experiences for himself you can probably imagine at this point. I don’t need to spell them all out for you. Nickel has a part of the campus for white boys and a part of the campus for black boys and in the middle is the White House where they go for extreme corporal punishment. There’s field work and house work but since it’s for kids it’s not a jail, it’s more like a dorm. Kids try to escape and are never seen again, kids break the rules or refuse to follow directions and are never seen again. Sometimes kids graduate back out into the real world, most of the time they don’t.
Honestly I’m horrified, but I’m not surprised. There was a period of time where as a white woman raised in one of the whitest states in the nation I was shocked and appalled by the things I learned about the racial inequities and history in this country. My education on these topics has been fast and complete and now it’s still horrifying, but I’m not numb to it, but I’m rarely surprised. My reaction now is “of course that happened in this nightmare country.”
It’s a short read, so if you’re curious about the history of the Dozier (Nickel) School, it’s worth it to pick up and bear witness to the story. The more people know that this happened, the lower the chance that these children will be forgotten. I linked to several articles at the beginning of the review if you are interested. It was an excellent read. Go get you some.