Part Nine: "Looking For Good Christian Men Who Have a Strong Interest in Boys..."
Below is one of the photographs I took at The Wilson Library at UNC from a page in the financial reports from the board of the The Eastern Carolina Training School For Boys. It shows the first building. Thank you photo-shop genius Thomas Schworer for making my iPhone shot look even better. This was the building my father knew as a boy.
I was nervous and had trouble focusing when I entered the Wilson Library to study the place where my Dad was sent when he was a kid. I had already heard stories from my mother, and also from a writer who lives in Rocky Mount, and the stories haunted me. (See emails, below.) The Eastern Carolina Industrial School For Boys first opened in 1927 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Before these institutions came along, children convicted of crimes were put in prisons with adults. Citizens objected to the plight of children in prisons, so they came up with separate places for young people. The "Training School" at Rocky Mount had boys (white boys, these places were segregated) as young as 8 years-old alongside 20 year-old young men off the chain gang. Boys were sent in for skipping school, but also for rape and assault, and they were all mixed together in a big house with no supervision at night, and no locks on the doors.
Recently, books have been published that fictionalize such places, including one set in the future by Peyton Marshall called "Goodhouse." I have that book, but I'm afraid to read it, as well as all the books like it that describe these "boys homes" or "training schools", like Colson Whitehead's "The Nickel Boys". I'm overwhelmed with anxiety thinking about these stories of abuse. One day I'll read these books, but I have to get my courage up.
My Dad, Riley Shepard, was put in The Eastern Carolina Training School when he was only a 12 year-old. I often wonder if the stealing he did as a child— robbing the strawberry plant of the bag of silver, taking the bicycle, and breaking into his grandmother's grocery store, would have been simply a phase he went through, a rough patch, while his brain was still developing. I wonder, did the head injury he sustained the year before impact his impulse control? How would his life have been different had he been spared this punishment?
I wonder, too, when his parents took him to see the psychiatrist in Kinston, (when Riley was 11 or 12, it was 1929 or 1930), what went on with psychiatrists back then in North Carolina? Did that psychiatrist recommend the Eastern Carolina Training School? If so, did the psychiatrist get a financial kick back from "The Training School" of some kind?
Back in 2018, when I showed up at the Wilson Library to look into this "training school" I was filled dread. I let myself have a break by looking up my father's name in their data base. A nice surprise for me, all of Riley Shepard's music came up. The library on the UNC campus has every single album Riley recorded, and they kindly made a CD for me.
I could only stall so long. I'd come all the way from Seattle to North Carolina to read about this difficult subject. When I dug into the reports, here are some of the things I learned: The "Training School" first opened in 1927 with money from the state. The school was given land to farm, and later, pigs and chickens. The average stay for each boy was 17 months. In the beginning, they wrote to the state that they had to send some of the boys away, after realizing they were developmentally delayed. (That is not the terminology they used, however, "feeble-minded" is what they wrote.) They sent many of the boys deemed "feeble-minded" to the Caswell Training School.
All of their annual reports for The Eastern Carolina Training School for Boys are available in the Wilson Library, and you can see from the reports that before The Great Depression, money flowed. People also sent the school gifts, even a piano and a radio. The state gave the school two horses to work the land, so they could teach the boys how to grow and pick food. By the time my father was there, The Depression had hit, and things were harder.
Right when they opened, maybe the first week, they worked one of the horses to death in the hot sun.
The board also wrote about how they advertised for staff by asking for "Good Christian men who have a strong interest in boys."
I was completely freaked out reading about this place. Even reading about little things like how the staff gave the boys a squirrel as a pet, but reported, "It died from too much attention."
The boys did all the work, they worked the fields, built the staff housing, cooked, and cleaned. The staff took the boys to movies, and there was time allowed for games and boxing. The founders of the "training school" bragged about how they never had to whip a boy, and that there were very few runaways. Punishment for extreme cases (I'm guessing this was my father, which has been confirmed by his journal entries) was solitary confinement for 48 hours, where the boy was given only crackers and water. I can imagine my 12-year-old father sitting in solitary confinement for two days, in the dark, with his freshly clipped hair.
Here is a page describing how they rate the boys at the school.
I began researching this institution in Rocky Mount in 2015, and found out the name was changed since my father's time there from The Eastern Carolina Training School for Boys to The Fountain School, named after Richard Tillman Fountain. Interesting, as my father mentions a boy with the last name Fountain in his journal, which I'll include in the next blog.
Back in April, 2016, before I travelled to The Wilson Library, I found out that the writer Allan Gurganus lived in Rocky Mount. He was born in 1947, seventeen years after my father was incarcerated, but I wondered if he had heard stories. I wrote him an email, asking what he knew about the place, and he and Jerome Frances (the "brilliant webmaster" mentioned in his email) kindly wrote back to me. Here is what he said:
Dear SS, I am grateful for your note last week regarding my Times editorial. My brilliant webmaster found info for you regarding the Fountain School. Growing up in Rocky Mount, I was aware of it. When I misbehaved, I was jovially threatened with incarceration.
Horrible that your kinsman was sentenced to a term there by his own relation. She must have been a stingy horror. We mostly heard of the school when boys escaped from there in cars they stole. I always pulled for them. I once attended a performance at the school. A local librarian staged a Shakespeare play with boys in every role. It was a spirited heartfelt performance and I left knowing how intelligent and misunderstood the inmates were.
All the best, AG
When I first read Mr.Gurganus' response back in 2016, I understood something on a deeper level, that people knew it was a harsh place. There's something about hearing from an actual person, a man who grew up in Rocky Mount, rather than reading a report in a library, that illuminates the situation. My father always spoke of his grandmother in glowing terms, and yet he said it was her decision to send him to Rocky Mount. Dad described Martha Tindal as a strong woman who was trying to teach him lessons, or maybe that's how he wanted me to think of her.
Reading that sentence in the email from Mr. Gurganus stating that anyone who sent a child to this place must have been a "stingy horror" shed light on something that I hadn't thought about before-- that it was truly a horrible thing she did. Maybe back in 1930 people didn't realize that the "training school" was a train wreck, but it was.
My father told my mother that he was sexually assaulted while incarcerated there. My half-sister, Leslie, told me that her mother, Joanne, said that Riley confided that he was gang raped at the Eastern Carolina School. This is something I've known for a while, most of my adult life, anyway. My father protected me from that part, he spoke about his time there to me, but not in detail. When I was a little girl, Dad called it "The Boy's Home at Rocky Mount" or he'd say, "I was sent to a boy's home by my grandmother." As a little girl, I imagined it to be like a farm where you went to do chores for a short while, where boys could reconsider what they did wrong, and maybe apologize and come home.
Later in 2018, I wrote to Mr. Jerome again, and Mr. Gurganus wrote back with more details about the Shakespeare play performed by the inmates:
Hello Ms. Silverman,
I was with Mr. Gurganus last week and we discussed your trip to NC. He has asked me to forward this note to you:
Stacya, I remember being stirred by the story of your dad’s being punished by his own kinswoman. I am sorry he was sent to the Boys’ Reform School outside Rocky Mount, NC. The home was called the Fountain Boys’ Home or some such, named for a philanthropic local family named Fountain. When I was a teenager growing up in RM, a librarian friend took me to this reformatory, all to see a Shakespeare play----was it Romeo and Juliet?---staged by the boy inmates. In Shakespeare’s day, males of course played all the roles. And so did the boy inmates. The Juliet was a blond lad, very girl-like in his prettiness.
I remember feeling he would not be safe after lights out. My friend from the library was a very smart hunchbacked woman who had a way of demanding the boys’ attention. I think they were scared of her appearance and so surrendered to her novelty and control.
But I thought you would like to know that certain townspeople took pity on the boys and showed them kindness and concern. You clearly loved your father very much. If you drive to Rocky Mount then head out of town on Wesleyan Blvd and you will pass on your right a sign that shows where the Fountain School stood and must still be in some form. As a child I recall occasionally hearing on the radio how two or three boys had escaped from the Reform School. I remember wishing them a clear escape. I wish you satisfaction in honoring your late father. All the best, Allan Gurganus
Warmest regards to you,
I will end this blog with that story within the beautiful and kind email. Next, we'll read some of Riley's journal entries about that time.