Lonnie Holley, an internationally celebrated sculpture artist and musician whose work is in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan, did not grow up breathing the rarified air of the art world. Born into a poor family in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950, Holley was taken from his mother by a traveling burlesque dancer, who later sold him to a pair of juke-joint owners for a pint of whiskey. At 11 years old, with no one to care for him, Holley got picked up by the police, who sent him where they often sent poor Black kids: the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.
For decades, Black children were sent to the Industrial School—known informally as Mt. Meigs—for everything from running away from home to “being incorrigible.” With a meager budget and almost no state oversight, Mt. Meigs became a living hell for the children housed there, who described the horrific physical and sexual abuse they endured at the hands of their adult caretakers. “I was beaten almost to death,” Holley told Atlanta. “A lot of the things that happened to us were too shameful to even talk about.”
Now, Mt. Meigs’ horrifying history has been exposed in Unreformed, a new podcast from iHeartPodcast and School of Humans. Hosted by Atlanta journalist Josie Duffy Rice, Unreformed gives survivors, including Holley and several others who served sentences there as children, the opportunity to share their stories. Through meticulous research, interviews with former case workers and lawyers, and the voices of survivors themselves, Duffy Rice and her team pieced together how a school launched by a well-meaning Black woman reformer essentially became a slave-labor camp for children. It’s not an easy listen, but Unreformed is a stunning work of truth-telling, uncovering a dark corner of American history whose legacy haunts us today.
The podcast opens with Duffy Rice attempting—unsuccessfully—to visit Mt. Meigs earlier this year. The facility is still open, though it’s now racially integrated and, according to Alabama Department of Youth Services, has a year-round school and recreational therapy programs. Duffy Rice, who covers mass incarceration and the juvenile criminal justice system as a journalist, doesn’t see Mt. Meigs’ modest improvement as a neat happy ending to its violent past. “This is an inherently punitive system,” she told Atlanta. “Boot camps, juvenile reformatories, military schools—I think these are inherently harmful to kids.”
The media production company School of Humans, which is based in Atlanta and has produced nearly 20 podcasts, approached Duffy Rice about hosting Unreformed back in 2020. President of Audio Virginia Prescott, formerly of Georgia Public Broadcasting, knew Lonnie Holley through her husband, Matt Arnett, who is Holley’s manager. They knew Holley had spent time in the notorious Mt. Meigs; through his stories, they came to understand just how deeply the experience had affected him. “It seemed that Mt. Meigs was such a visceral touchstone him,” said Gabby Watts, who produced Unreformed. “We thought that was really the story to tell.”
Holley connected the podcast team to Denny Abbott, a former probation officer and case worker for the Montgomery County Family Court, which routinely sent children to Mt. Meigs. Abbott was in his early twenties when several girls escaped from the school and landed in his office, desperate to inform the outside world about the abuse and forced labor they were enduring at the school.
Abbott brought the case to the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Alabama in 1969 and exposed the horrific conditions of detained children at the school. “Corporal punishment is administered freely and excessively,” read an AP article covering the lawsuit, which received national attention. “Young black offenders are required to spend large amounts of time performing manual labor ‘for the sole purpose of producing income for the institution.’”
The school was started in the late 1880s by Cornelia Bowen, a graduate of the first class of the Tuskegee Institute, who received her diploma on the steps of the plantation house where her mother had once been enslaved. Bowen opened the school to rescue the Black boys who were being sent to adult detention centers and provide a nurturing environment for their reform. But with private funding in jeopardy, Bowen lobbied the state to take over the school in 1911; in the years that followed, the Black children she had set out to help became powerless victims of the school she founded.
After the lawsuit—which cost Abbott his job—Mt. Meigs was forced to desegregate, end its forced farm labor program, limit corporal punishment, and introduce real rehabilitation programs. It didn’t solve all the issues, but it was an important correction to decades of abuse. Abbott, who wrote a book about the lawsuit, is a critical voice in the podcast, and his records served as invaluable archival material, as many Mt. Meigs records were destroyed by fire. “Like a lot of Black history in Southern states, it’s just lost,” said Duffy Rice.
Abbott connected the podcast team to several people who were formerly incarcerated at Mt. Meigs, including Mary Stephens, one of the girls who escaped the facility. They also interviewed Johnny Mack Young, a former Mt. Meigs inmate who is now serving a life sentence for murder and has become a criminal justice reformer from within the system; for many children who served time at the facility, the trauma and violence inflicted there became a pattern to be copied, not a shot at redemption.
Though the podcast centers on the horrific actions of decades past, Duffy Rice believes the state of Alabama should acknowledge the harm Mt. Meigs caused. “It owes these people a reckoning; it owes them an apology,” she said. “We need some kind of accounting for how their cruelty and degradation of children led to other harms.” And while Mt. Meigs may no longer be the nightmare it once was, children are still harmed by punitive systems just like it. “There is an institution relatively similar to this in every state in the country,” Duffy Rice noted. “The way we handle juveniles in the criminal justice system (in this country) is horrifying. It’s among the worst in the world.”
Holley was one of the “lucky ones:” though he was nearly beaten to death after attempting to run away, he survived the years he spent at Mt. Meigs. Discovered as a folk artist at the age of 29, he’s gone on to a colorful career as a sculpturist and musician. In fact, he’s set to be the first artist to showcase their work at Midtown’s UTA Artist Space when it opens later this month. Many of his works are inspired by the trauma he endured at Mt. Meigs.
To overcome all that he endured, Holley told me, he built himself a rich internal world, the creative force that helped him become the artist he is today. “I have never just sat around and grieved all the time,” he said. “Everywhere I went, I was learning.”