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.

"One day we were on our way to school," he recalls. "We wanted to go to this baseball game, at the old Royals stadium, so bad. So I said, "Hey, we can walk from here, from 40th and Prospect down to 18th and Brooklyn, and be there in time for the game.' We made it inside, and there was this truant officer -- I don't know where he came from. Fat Sundae (his friend Robert Burns, who always had an ice cream in his hand) still thinks I'm mad at him because he got away -- I was the one who ran track! But they caught me and took me to school, and that's when the trouble started. I've never been much of a person to like authority, and they started talking to me, and I kind of -- no, I didn't "kind of' nothing -- I got pissed. I said, "This is the first time I done anything and y'all gonna try and suspend me?' And then I got into a fight in the lunchroom and they did suspend me."

Next thing he knew, he found himself at Boonville.

"I think Dad was trying to make me snap out of being rowdy," he says wryly. "But it had the opposite effect." By 1963, there were 459 kids at Boonville and nowhere near enough staff to handle them. School, says Wainwright, "wasn't pushed" -- at least, not if you were sufficiently big and strong to work the fields. Evenings, he spent dodging bullies like the massive "Raspberry," who'd terrified him from day one, and fighting.

David Wainwright was 15 when he entered state custody and, he says, he's never been the same: "This is not history to me. This is memory."
Jennifer Silverberg
David Wainwright was 15 when he entered state custody and, he says, he's never been the same: "This is not history to me. This is memory."
Donald "D.W." Wyrick , former warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary , recalls an incident in the yard: "The tower officers saw what was happening, and two or three guys came down with shotguns, shot a couple of 'em all to hell. One of 'em, I took care of him myself, knocked his teeth out. He picked 'em up and put 'em in his pocket. That's the way things were in those days."
Jennifer Silverberg
Donald "D.W." Wyrick , former warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary , recalls an incident in the yard: "The tower officers saw what was happening, and two or three guys came down with shotguns, shot a couple of 'em all to hell. One of 'em, I took care of him myself, knocked his teeth out. He picked 'em up and put 'em in his pocket. That's the way things were in those days."

"They had a little ritual -- they'd take you down in the basement and you had to fight the duke of the dormitory," he recalls. "Either you learned, or you took a whuppin'. At first, I just put my head down and started swingin'; that's what I thought fighting was about." Finally another boy taught him technique. "You take a kid 15 years old, and every day you get him in the basement boxing with people, it becomes part of who you are," observes Wainwright. "We didn't think about things, we just reacted: "You piss me off, I'll get your butt.' The guards used to goad us into fighting with each other, and they'd bet on us."

One night, he says, "a guard came downstairs and broke up a fight by hitting us with a steel watchclock, and we fought back." As punishment, he and several others were sent to the "hole," which he remembers as "up on the roof, kind of like an old warehouse." Then he was told that they were being moved. "There was a priest -- he's the one told us," says Wainwright, his eyes narrowing. "We asked why and he said, "Because you're mess-ups.'"

No one else at MTS mentioned the upcoming move, as far as he remembers. "One morning they just came and got us and drove us to Jefferson City. The first thing I saw was a guy being brought out on a stretcher, dead, with a knife in his stomach. Big muscular guy, a grown man." He remembers whispering to the others, "We haven't even gotten into the place yet and they bringing out dead bodies."

"That," he says now, "was when we all decided to stick together."

The penitentiary had been branded "the bloodiest 40 acres in America" when a 1954 riot left five men dead, scores of guards injured and seven buildings burned. Nine years later, 3,400 prisoners were jammed inside the Gothic limestone, gun-turreted walls, more than double the number it was built to house. "It was a very dangerous place," concedes Department of Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest. "It was the only maximum-security prison in the state, so they had nowhere else to send people. Now you can home in on how violent they are, and house the most predatory together. But back then they had barely any classifications." In 1963, the year these boys arrived, three adult inmates were murdered within 24 hours, prompting an investigation by Democratic state Rep. Peter J.J. Rabbitt of Shrewsbury. He called the place a "medieval twilight zone," noting that in the previous 15 months, there had been 212 acts of violence serious enough to require hospital treatment.

"They put us all in H Hall," resumes Wainwright, "but they split us kids up. It was damp and real dark in there, like a cave, and at first I thought they were putting me in an empty cell. I was thinking, "OK, OK, I'm all right.'" Then his eyes adjusted to the 25-watt bulb, and he saw the outline of an older man's hunched shoulders. Nicknamed "Undertaker," his new cellmate was probably middle-aged, but to Wainwright he "seemed like an ancient old dude, some fossil sitting there in the dark. He started telling me all these stories, 'cause he'd been there before, back in the '40s. He told me, "You're gonna have to fight while you're here.' And he kind of looked out for me when they come in with that sexual shit. I wasn't gonna be no punk (the prison term for a submissive homosexual partner). I had too many fights at Boonville about that shit."

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
9
 
10
 
11
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
St. Louis Concert Tickets
Loading...