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Juvenile Justice Centers Oakley and Columbia: A Brief History

By Earnest McBride

©2006. Earnest McBride, Jackson, Mississippi.

Mississippi State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, founded in 1908, was the moving force behind establishment of Columbia and Oakley Training Schools. Racist Governor Theo Bilbo used the women's ideas to set up Columbia Training School for white children in 1916. Black juveniles continued to be neglected until the founding of Oakley in 1942. Mrs. Lucy C. Jefferson, co-founder of W. H. Jefferson Funeral Home of Vicksburg, today the oldest black business in Mississippi, stands at center front with white camellia pinned to her dress. Theodore G. Bilbo Lucy Jefferson

Politics do indeed make for some very strange bedfellows. Add in a dash of hope for justice -- particularly of the juvenile variety -- and the bedding fellowship becomes even stranger.

Consider the pairing of former rabid, racist Mississippi Governor and Senator Theo Bilbo in the same political bed with the urbane, wealthy and famously philanthropical Lucy C. Jefferson of Vicksburg. It did happen, folks. And we have the offspring of the two as living proof of that unbelievable coupling -- Oakley and Columbia.

Bilbo was one of the creators of the book on white supremacy and racial segregation. He was one of the dominant political figures in Mississippi for most of the first half of the 20th Century. As state senator, Lt. Governor, Governor, twice, and United States Senator, he shaped the state's image, for good or evil, in the eyes of the world.

Statewide attention had been drawn to the needs and problems of idle youth since the development of the public school system in the 1870s. Free schools and texts were now provided by the state for both black and white students. Even though school integration had been tried on a limited scale under the administration of State school superintendent of Thomas W. Cardozo during the Reconstruction era, there was absolutely no chance of wayward black youths being housed with white boys and girls at the state's only juvenile detention facility after Columbia Training School opened in 1918. This was mainly because Bilbo's whole political existence was rooted in his racist notion of white superiority to blacks.

"The principle of segregation of the white and Negro races in the South is so well known that it requires no definition," Bilbo repeatedly said. "Briefly and plainly stated, the object of this policy is to prevent the two races from meeting on terms of social equality."

In 1908, a large number of politically active professional black women combined their organizations to form the Mississippi Federation of Colored Women's Clubs patterned after the national organization begun in 1895 by Dorothy Ruffin. A main part of their mission was to establish a home for delinquent black children . The other goal was to offer some form of effective care for poor elderly black women who could no longer fend for themselves. The women thought that if they could gain the ear of the governor, who was son to be Bilbo, they might be able to gain his sympathy. Bilbo, in fact, used a substantial part of the plan drawn up by the federated women, but he restricted his efforts to establish a facility for white to be located near his home base in Columbia in 1918.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, Mississippi's prison system was built primarily to house black men who were both a necessary labor entity and the social bane of the white men who ruled the state with an iron fist. Even an eight-year-old black child accused of stealing some insignificant item was sent to Parchman and placed among the adult inmates there

In his 1996 book Worse Than Slavery, David Oshinsky wrote of the plight of black kids as young as eight being sent to Parchman early in the 20th Century. The delinquency factor was programmed into the lives of the black youth born in the Reconstruction era because of the violence directed against them by white marauders to keep them away from their schools, and the glaring lack of protection offered their helpless parents and community leaders. Black schools were frequently burned by these insane white men, the white teachers from the North being either beaten, shot, raped or even lynched before the eyes of the young pupils.

The father of famous composer William Grant Still was a school principal in Amite County in 1872 when white killers dressed in white hoods and cloaks, though not necessarily Ku Klux Klansmen at the time, attacked the black principal of another nearby school and lynched him in the school yard and threatened to do the same to some of the students. In the face of such overt violence to black children, Still's father sent his pupils home and closed his school for a while.

Extreme violence against black children and their parents was another means of control over black Mississippians and assured white farmers of a complacent pool of cheap labor. Oshinsky described the efforts of elected black officials to build meaningful lives for the black youth coming of age in Reconstruction Mississippi and of the violent and deadly behavior of heartless white men determined to prevent such good efforts.

"Reconstruction in Mississippi has sometimes been portrayed as an orgy of waste and corruption, led by Northern profiteers (‘carpetbaggers'), Southern opportunists (‘scalawags'), and ignorant blacks," Oshinsky writes. "In reality, the Reconstruction governments were more compassionate and democratic than any the state had known before. Money was raised to build hospitals, expand state asylums, and repair public works devastated by war. The remaining Black Codes were repealed, and racial distinctions were wiped from the statute books. In 1870, the legislature passed Mississippi's first public education law, guaranteeing four months of free schooling each year to all children, regardless of race. It appeared as if real change were coming to a culture-frozen in time."

The defeated white Confederate veterans of the Civil War ultimately perfected their methods of terror and takeover of local government after the 1875 resurgence of redneck Democrats. Violent gang assaults against defenseless blacks and their white support groups and individuals from the North combined with rigid segregation to establish the order of the day.

"With slavery abolished," says Oshinsky, "Mississippi was moving toward a formal -- and violent -- separation of the races. Deeply rooted customs were now being written into law. The state legislature had just passed the South's first Jim Crow ordinance, prohibiting Negroes from riding in railroad coaches set aside for whites. Following suit, the city of Natchez had segregated its river walkways in order to keep black men and white women apart -- the right bluff for use of the whites, for ladies and children and nurses; the central bluff for bachelors and the colored population; and the lower promenade for whites."

With the aim of making life better for the elderly and the very young, the determined black women, who had lived through the high points of Black Reconstruction leadership in the 1870 and then had endured the violent repression of the 1880s and 1890s, sought to find strength in numbers. The wife of Booker T. Washington, a native of Macon, MS, was the national chairwoman and Lucy C. Jefferson of Vicksburg, one of the founding members, was president of the state chapter. After setting up a home for senior citizens called Cedar Grove in Clinton, the women then set their sights on developing a facility for the wayward black boys who were considered to be nothing more than fodder for the prison system and subject to having their entire lives foreshortened when placed among the corrupt and decadent denizens of Mississippi's jail and prison system.

Bilbo signed into law the bill creating the Mississippi Industrial and Training School in March 1916, only two months after being sworn in as governor. "We do not want any reformatory with all the stain and stigma that attaches to such a name to discourage hope and sterilize ambition among the beneficiaries of the institution," Bilbo said in his inaugural address. "We need a school for the right direction of the native virility, enterprise and impetuosity that so frequently are responsible for delinquency of the wayward boy; qualities which, given right direction and development, create the useful citizen and strength of the state, but left to chance and misdirection, become a real danger and menace to society and the State."

Members of the Colored Women's Federation were not reluctant to approach the governor on every occasion he would allow them to. Having the white youth facility to show as an example of the need of a facility to rein in the deprecations of black youths. Mississippi's population was still a majority black up through the 1940s and so the problem of black delinquency overshadowed that of white delinquency several times over.

"Various groups of Mississippi citizens had recognized the problems and methods of dealing with juvenile lawbreakers for a quarter of a century before definite action was assured by the state in regard to Negro children," wrote Lucille Price, the project director of the Federation of Colored Women's Clubs mission to establish a training school.

With their dreams still unrealized in the 1930s, the federated black women became hopeful again after Bilbo's second term (1934-1938). With favorable legislation passed in 1940, the emphasis in 1942 was to set up a facility for wayward black youths based loosely on the model set up by the race-baiting Governor Bilbo in Marion County at Columbia. The choice of Columbia supposedly had been based on the best bid among six competing towns, and not on Bilbo's concern for "pork barreling" his own area.

Bilbo served a second term as governor beginning in 1934. It wasn't until 1940, however, that the state legislature passed a bill -- SB 239 -- "to regulate the custody, control, care, and training of delinquent colored youth, to provide for the establishment and maintenance of a state training school for colored youths." In 1942, the Mississippi Negro Juvenile Reformatory was established for "Negro boys and girls less than 18 years of age." But the training school did not officially open until 1948.The location of the site was at Oakley.

With passage of the Youth Court Act of 1946, the current system of Juvenile Justice came into being, although black and white youths were rigidly segregated both in their community schools and in the training facilities at Columbia and Oakley until 1969. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several black youths sped up the process of desegregation.

Both Oakley and Columbia are currently in a state of duress because of the decades-long failure of the staff and administrators of the facilities, the state bureaucrats and legislators in letting the institutions go to seed. Federal investigators in 2002 found examples of torture, sexual abuse, medical neglect and an atmosphere of general failure of the state to protect the youths entrusted to them.

The 2002 federal report on Oakley and Columbia describes a chamber of horrors: Children, mostly black, aged 10-17 forced to do overly strenuous exercises far beyond their capacity. Over taxed girls sick to their stomach forced to eat their own puke. Children sexually and physically abused in their own families made to sit naked in a rough wooden chair while tied down to prevent any physical motion. Others hog-tied with chains, pole-axed and sprayed in the face with noxious chemicals.

Legal action from the U. S. Department of Justice spurred by Congressman Bennie Thompson and the Southern Poverty Law Center was threatened against the state. But in 2004, things still hadn't changed. The feds filed the promised lawsuit. The state was given a chance to enter into a consent decree to bring about a wholesale change at the youth detention facilities, but dragged their feet, in effect defying the Justice Department's orders.

On May 4, 2005, state officials, including the governor and the attorney general decided to avoid a losing battle and admitted guilt and signed a consent decree to clean up the mess at Columbia and Oakley within four years.

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