Amidst cluttered grids of city streets, most people carry their days from sunrise skies to the closing of sunset without so much as a thought to what came before their Volvos and iPhones. Vehicles hum beneath a bright red sky. Rush hour – the drone of midtown traffic rings throughout the chaotic collective of urban civilization. A sulking society that work to live, paying little to no attention to the world outside their office windows, nor even sparing a moment to look past the hum of downtown traffic from the comfort of their cars. They simply drive away – industry glowing in their rear view like blood orange fireflies lavished before a silhouetted skyline; our history becomes further lost in the continuing carelessness of this constant grind.
Between the contrast of piss-soaked slums to the fine wine culture of the socially elite, you would never imagine that so many historically significant parts of our past sit so close – in this case, perhaps only moments from falling face first into the dry North Carolina dirt. Reality of it is though, most others wouldn’t notice either unless it involved their smart phones. This is why I feel such a strong importance in documenting these places, sharing them with the world.
Welcome to the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center. The center – built from 1907 to 1909 by architect Louis H. Asbury – was a juvenile correctional facility brought to life as a result of 20 years of organization by white women’s groups in North Carolina. These women’s groups felt there to be a strong need for an institution to hold the troubled boys and young men of the day’s youth. The project had only been approved once groups came to an agreement of naming the school after Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
The center was built due to a desire to separate the troubled youth from adult prisoners, and at the time was considered a progressive institution. The institution was established by an act of state legislature in 1907, finally opening in 1909 as the first juvenile detention facility in North Carolina. Boys were held upon these grounds for usually minor troubles, including something as simple as school truancy. Punishments in these days were a great deal harsher – be grateful that things have since changed.
Originally, 60 structures were built, sprawled across 76.3 acres of land to house larger numbers of troubled children. To this day, only 23 of these 60 are used – most of them providing storage space, and housing far less children. Architecturally, the structures were built in Colonial Revival style.
The day I visited, it was hot; the kind of heat that could turn sweat to sizzling steam without so much as giving the drops a chance to even kiss the asphalt. Humidity hugged my throat as my head held heavy with a pounding severe enough to make a lead pipe to the skull sound like choice medicine. The cold steel of a tripod was all I had to cool my skin from burning under sweltering heat. Slowly I wandered, tripod to the back of my neck, making my way towards the entrance of one of the defunct wards. I wandered straight to where it appeared as though a tornado had torn a door straight form its hinges. I held high hopes that the air inside would offer a cooler, damper atmosphere, but was immediately brought to disappointment when the temperature seemed to rise by at least 15 degrees.
At this point, my arms felt like hot, wet, heavy leather underneath layers of dirt and sweat, which coated them. I stopped not long after, only to take a short break within a dusty stairwell, attempting to keep hydrated with a near-boiling bottle of water. Standing midway to the top of the stairs, I relaxed my grip on the cold steel of the handrail, wondering what a madhouse this may have been in the past; the books worth of stories probably buried in this wreckage. I stood quietly, admiring the paint peeling around me; it was like the building was trying to shed a life that it was ashamed of, striving to be beautiful again. The sad reality of this life is, there’s no beauty that won’t grow old. It’s up to us to open our eyes and minds to see it for what it is, or what it was.
The initial intention of the facility was to provide a reformatory for white boys as part of prison reform. While incarcerated, the young men and children were provided living within a series of dormitory styled buildings, while receiving an education, and at the same time learning a special trade. From shoe making to textiles and machine shops, students were put to work. While many remained busy on the school’s farm, learning modern agricultural techniques, others would sweat the days away in sweltering hot shops.
Later on, both white and African-American women’s groups joined together in an attempt to press the legislature for equal facilities for white girls as well as both African-American boys and girls. It would be several years before more facilities were brought into construction. It was not until the year 1918, when the first facility for white girls was constructed. The new facility was called Samarcand, and was built in Moore County. Communities would still have to wait some time before a space was opened to African-Americans.
Times were quite different back then. It sometimes seems as though every word in the English dictionary was thrown into a hat, and a handful would be picked from the bunch, creating a new idea for the people in power. During the year of 1948, statewide efforts had continued to “improve” the population. In an attempt to limit “feeblemindedness,” the Stonewall Jackson Training School continued in efforts of sterilization by vasectomy of six teenage white males; these operations were authorized by the state Eugenics Board. If that seems strange enough in comparison to what we have grown used to under today’s standards, keep in mind that most sterilizations were performed on girls and women rather than boys or men.
At one point, the facility held up to as many as 500 youths, but was criticized for overcrowding, in conjunction with other troubles quite common within juvenile centers of its kind. Prisoner violence became a heavy issue that this facility faced, including a plethora of inhumane conditions, with youths being attacked and even raped by other inmates. Russell Smith himself suffered these awful conditions and attacks in the 1960s, between the age of 13-15. Later in his adult life, after serving the remainder of his sentences in state and federal prisons, he became an activist, as well as the founder of both the National Gay Prisoner Coalition, and People Organized to Stop Rape of Imprisoned Persons – otherwise known as POSRIP – established in 1980. Due to the name being only slightly too much of a mouth full, it was later shortened to Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc. which just as elegantly rolls off the tongue.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the punishments for youth grew less strict, and it was seldom seen that a child would be incarcerated for something as minor as a simple truancy from school. It was around this same time that the state had decided to reduce population at the facility.
Polluted by an awfully dark past, this historic juvenile center is now known as the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Facility, housing only more serious offenders such as youth involved in drug abuse and weapons-related charges. The sixty acres of enclosed property hold generally 150 young men, within a 15-foot-high fence. In 1992, a pet therapy program was introduced, where youth could learn to care for dogs, with animals occasionally being made available for adoption outside the center.
As of 2015, only 23 of the 60 structures sprawled throughout these large grounds are used, with most of the 23 being occupied simply for purpose of storage. Due to the historic significance of these structures, the facility was added to the NRHP on March 15, 1984.
In today’s society, so many of us lack the ability to see something broken as anything more than worthless and replaceable – too many of us rely on technology for everything, always seeing it as an “advancement.” Between the white picket fence dreams, nobody has time to talk about the rain, let alone study it, and we’ve been hit with a downpour.
Too many may never notice this forgotten world surrounding them, because of their refusal to break away for a moment and listen to something other than the constant hissing and clunking of a downtown bus stop.