The Boys from Boonville

In 1963, a group of African-American runaways and truants was sent to a rural reform school. Then the nightmare began.

When Stanley Joseph was 15, he fell in love with the girl next door, and together they discovered sex. In a New York borough, it would have made for a Philip Roth novel. But these kids lived in St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and the year was 1963. "My girlfriend's mother blamed me for her daughter's interest in sex," says Joseph, "and several of her adult male relatives made threats against me that couldn't be ignored."

Joseph didn't know what to do -- and neither did his parents. "They were timid Christian people who were quite satisfied with being able to fade into obscurity," he explains wryly. "My mother was a housewife and my dad was a mailman, and neither knew how to defuse the situation." Instead, Franklin and Bernice Joseph quietly began looking for a way to move out of the projects with their nine kids. But in their eldest's anxious mind, that wasn't near enough action to counter the menace from the Capulet side of this feud. So he ran away from home.

His parents knew they'd find him at the home of relatives, but sensing a possible solution, they had him brought in by the juvenile authorities. Then, says Joseph, they begged the judge to keep their boy someplace safe until they could move out of the projects. "The judge said the only way he could detain me for any noticeable length of time would be to send me to the Missouri Training School for Boys in Boonville."

On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.
Dan Gill
On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.

At the time, it seemed like an answer. On March 7, 1963, the boy was duly committed to the State Board of Training after a hearing in which, according to juvenile records, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker."

The next day, Joseph walked for the first time through the heavy doors of the Missouri Training School for Boys (MTS). Ninety minutes west of St. Louis, the residence had opened back in 1887 to reform delinquent youngsters ages 10-17. By the early 1940s, its reputation was Dickensian. ("When they wanted to punish the boys, they would put them in solitary and grind up their food into garbage," recalls Ann Carter Stith of St. Louis, a former Kansas City Star reporter who was eventually galvanized into working for prison reform.)

Soon after Joseph arrived at Boonville, there was an especially bad fight between a black boy and a white boy. "They tried to say I was involved, but I didn't know either one of 'em," he says. "I'd only been there a few days! They came and got me -- I was working in the bakery -- and they had about eight other black guys, and they took us all to the hole (concrete cells on the top floor of the administration building). They never did say why."

Solitary confinement would have been bad enough, but four weeks later, Joseph found himself handcuffed, shackled and thrown on a bus with six other boys. They were being "administratively transferred" to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, then called "the bloodiest 40 acres in America." There, the boys were strip-searched, fingerprinted, photographed and assigned inmate numbers.

There had been no warning, no hearing, no certification of the 14- and 15-year-olds as legal adults and no criminal charges against them, let alone convictions. According to Missouri prison records, all these boys were originally charged with "delinquency," then transferred to the penitentiary because they were "incorrigible."

They were also black. And in the next two weeks, Joseph says, he saw two more groups of juveniles processed into the penitentiary, not a white boy among them.

On April 19, his group was moved again, this time to the Algoa prison farm, where for the next year Joseph would do manual labor and sleep in an open dormitory with 50 or so young-adult convicts.

His shocked parents -- who first learned of the transfer when he wrote them from the penitentiary -- drove to Algoa faithfully every two weeks on visiting day. Except for the first time, though, Joseph's dad always waited outside in the car. "He was ashamed of his child and himself," explains Joseph tersely. After that first visit, when they were confronted with a son battered, bruised and indefinably changed, his parents had begun to quarrel bitterly. His mom was desperate for his dad to do something to save their son. His dad didn't know how -- and he was terrified of losing his government job.

"In 1963," remarks Joseph, "it was not wise for a black man with a large family to make trouble for powerful state officials."

David Wainwright's earliest memories are the little cakes his mom used to make, and then her lying down one day, when he was about 7, and dying. "At the time, I thought she was just tired and went to sleep, and I started shaking her," he says. "To this day I don't know what happened. Nobody ever took the time to explain it to me." The Wainwrights lived in a semirough part of Kansas City; David's brothers were all older, and his dad was a big, stern man ("You didn't quiz him") who worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. That left David with his new stepmother for long stretches, and at 15, when he started getting "rowdy," she wasn't sure how to handle him.

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