A Home for Wayward Boys
The Early History of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School
Jerry C. Armor
Early in the 20th century, male juvenile offenders in Alabama sometimes were sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School (ABIS), near Birmingham, rather than put into prison with adults. Their crimes ranged from manslaughter to smoking cigarettes as minors. A number of orphans, runaways and victims of broken families also ended up there.
Opened in 1900, the ABIS was a not a “reform school” in the typical sense. The boys’ school had been founded by a dedicated, driven and religious woman, Elizabeth Johnston. And it operated with a very unusual structure: its board of directors consisted entirely of women, at a time when women still could not vote in elections and mostly were expected to just stay home and not get involved in business and politics.
As the ABIS grew, so did what it offered to “wayward boys.” At first, it mainly provided food, a rustic but safe place to sleep, religious services and some hard work doing farming, repairs and other tasks on the school’s sprawling acreage. Soon, however, the ABIS began stressing military discipline and training, too–indeed, issuing army-style uniforms and rifles to young juvenile offenders who had been sent to ABIS by Alabama judges. Then a military marching band evolved and expanded, and it eventually led a parade in Birmingham for President Theodore Roosevelt, played with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., and appeared at numerous other events.
As the ABIS gained more buildings and staff, it began offering education in a variety of trades, including tailoring and sewing, painting, barbering, sheet metal work, bakery work, and radio repair.
Many of the youths sent to ABIS as offenders turned their lives around and graduated, and some earned outstanding combat records in World War I and World War II. Some even came back to teach and administrate at ABIS.
Jerry C. Armor’s book is an eye-opening and uplifting look at the 75-year history of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School. He places a special emphasis on the school’s difficult formative years, as well as on funny, sad and strange anecdotes about how some of the youths ended up there.
Armor details how one woman who sensed she was following God’s calling fearlessly lobbied the Alabama governor and state legislature and begged businesses and various organizations for funds and supplies to start the school and keep it running and growing. And he tells the stories of key leaders within the school who helped it survive and thrive during its colorful, yet little-known, history.
A federal law enacted in the 1970s established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. And that new agency’s “policies, standards, and recommendations…drastically changed how states dealt with troubled youth,” Armor writes. In 1975, he notes, the Alabama Department of Youth Services assumed control of the ABIS and several other facilities in the state.” The campus soon was renamed, and its programs were changed to meet the new requirements.
Armor’s book includes a call to action for citizens of Alabama who are concerned about today’s high rate of recidivism (70%) for juvenile offenders in their state. The rate was considerably lower, he notes, for the youths sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School.