A Look At Mt. Meigs' Dark Past | Crooked Media
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January 23, 2023
What A Day
A Look At Mt. Meigs' Dark Past

In This Episode

  • Host Josie Duffy Rice tells us about “Unreformed,” her investigative podcast series about Mt. Meigs — a juvenile reform school outside of Montgomery, Alabama, where thousands of Black children were subjected to abuse for decades. The series follows the stories of former students who were sent to Mt. Meigs as children during the Civil Rights era — and how their time at the facility impacted their lives as adults.
  • And in headlines: the death toll from the mass shooting in Monterey Park, California rose to 11 people, four more Oath Keepers were found guilty of seditious conspiracy for their role in the Capitol riots, and Microsoft said it will invest billions of dollars in the research startup behind the AI chatbot system ChatGPT.


Show Notes:



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Josie Duffy Rice: It’s Tuesday, January 24th. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson. And this is What A Day where we will quietly overlook that you’ve already abandoned your New Year’s resolution, if you’ll do the same for us. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Actually, my New Year’s resolution was to not eat ice cream for breakfast anymore, and I have kept to that.


Tre’vell Anderson: At least for 24 days. And we love that for you. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And also, I might have cheated one day. [laughter] [music break] On today’s show, investigators continue to search for a motive behind Saturday’s mass shooting in Southern California. Plus, the FDA is considering a potential overhaul to its COVID vaccine strategy. 


Tre’vell Anderson: But first, today, we’re going to talk about a new project that you’ve been working on, Josie. We mentioned it last Wednesday. It’s an eight episode narrative podcast called Unreformed. And the first episode was released last week. Can you tell us a little bit about the podcast? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I can. So this is a project I’ve been working on for a while um since even before I started here at WAD. And it’s really, really dear to my heart. It’s a story about a school outside of Montgomery, Alabama, formerly called the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. But everybody calls it Mt. Meigs and it’s basically what people call a juvenile reformatory. And it’s been around since the early 1900s. And if you’re wondering, yes, it’s actually still open today, although they have changed the name and no longer has Negro children in the title. So I guess that’s an improvement [laugh] of some sort. Anyway, for years, Black kids were sent to this quote unquote “school” for things like being out past curfew or skipping school, like relatively small things. Right. And before the 1970s, they could also be sent there for no reason at all. Like if, for example, they lost their parents or didn’t have anyone to care for them when foster cares and orphanages wouldn’t take in Black kids, they were sent to Mt. Meigs. And this was just really not a good institution. It was extremely abusive, an extremely terrible place for kids to be. And our project focuses mostly on what it was like for those kids in the 1960s, which was a particularly rough time at the institution. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, I listened to the first episode. I’m looking forward to the rest that come out. How exactly did you find out about Mt. Meigs in the first place? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, actually I learned about it because of a man named Lonnie Holley. Uh. For those who don’t know, Lonnie is this really famous visual artist who has had his work in museums all across the world, uh like the Met and the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. Right. Like he’s a very accomplished artist, and his specialty is working with found objects, basically stuff that other people have discarded. He makes this really amazing art and sculpture out of string and wire and stuff that the rest of us would just toss. Lonnie’s story is in episode one, so you can actually hear it now. But he was one of 27 children growing up. He grew up in Birmingham and he got separated from his family kind of early on in his life. And one night he was out past curfew, searching for found objects, as he always was into doing, and he was arrested and eventually sent to Mt. Meigs. And so he was the first one to kind of alert me and the others who worked on this project about Mt. Meigs. And he became this like world famous artist, but this place always haunted him. Um. Here’s Lonnie talking about Mt. Meigs. 


[clip of Lonnie Holley] I tried to live with it, but not just trying to live with it, but I tried to get away from it. I tried to get away from it and I couldn’t, you couldn’t. No where to run from there. No way to escape it. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You can kind of hear in his voice, right? The the enduring impact of that time there. You said that Mt. Meigs has been around for over a hundred years. Why are you all focusing on the 1960s? Is that when Lonnie was there? 


Josie Duffy Rice: That is when he was there. But there are really two other reasons we decided to focus on that decade. First, because it’s the 1960s in Montgomery, Alabama, like the middle of the civil rights movement, right? This is the place where Rosa Parks gets arrested for not getting out of the seat. This is where Martin Luther King is arrested. This is the center of so much. And right down the street from all of that is this school that was functionally a plantation. I mean, literally where hundreds of Black kids were subject to this awful abuse and nobody really knew about it. The other reason we focus on the 1960s is because of this wild thing that happened in 1968. So in 1968, five girls ran away from the institution, which isn’t the crazy part. Kids ran away all the time because it was so awful and these girls were picked up by the police, which was also very common because all the kids always had to wear these oversized military fatigues. So they were immediately recognizable when they ran away. Anyway, these girls were caught. They were taken to the juvenile detention center and they were about to be sent back to Mt. Meigs. And the crazy part is that while they were at this detention center, one of the girls, Mary, insisted on talking to someone in charge. And she said she just wanted to tell someone what was going on there about the physical and sexual abuse, the terrible conditions, the lack of food, the fact that kids never went to school and were forced to pick cotton and work the fields all hours of the day. Here’s Mary talking about why she decided to speak up. 


[clip of Mary, from Unreformed podcast] We were wanting to speak with someone, you know, because we knew they were going to send us back there and we were not going. I was I was not going back without telling somebody what was going on with me. 


Tre’vell Anderson: It’s so interesting, just like, you know, hearing them reflect on this time period and knowing right that like, I think we think of these things and we think they happened so far ago. Right? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. 


Tre’vell Anderson: But like, people are still alive, right. Who lived through– 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. 


Tre’vell Anderson: –some of these horrific things. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. I mean, that was part of the reason we wanted to do this story now. Those kids who were there in the sixties, they’re in their seventies now. I mean, they’re getting older, but they’re still here and so is a man named Denny Abbott. So basically Mary decided to tell someone and a man named Denny Abbott happened to hear her that day and he invited her into his office and she told him everything. And Denny, who is this white guy in Montgomery, Alabama, who worked at the juvenile detention center, you know, he decides he has to do something, so he blows the whistle on Mt. Meigs He alerts the world basically about this abuse. And so much of our story follows what happened to the kids, and to the school, and to Denny after he blew the whistle. And we actually talked to Mary and Denny, among others, about what happened. You know, as you can imagine, lots of people were not happy with him. The judge that Denny Abbott worked for had prosecuted Martin Luther King Junior. He punished kids who protested segregation like this was not an environment that was willing to stand up for black kids or do anything about it. So I won’t tell you what happens. I really suggest you listen. But like I said, it’s a really, really wild story and it’s really the main reason we focused on the 1960s. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, And I know there’s something else about this school that you in particular were drawn to, and it’s part of the reason you decided to do the podcast as well. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, there is. So basically, once we started looking into Mt. Meigs, we realized something that was really kind of shocking. We realized that tons of kids who had gone there in the 1960s ended up in prison as adults and not just prison, but on death row or sentenced to life without parole. And not just a few, I mean, dozens, maybe hundreds of kids. And so as someone who focuses on criminal justice and how harmful the system is, I found this particular part like very harrowing and fascinating. These were kids who were sent to Mt. Meigs for small things like it’s not like they were all very violent children. They were sent there for tiny infractions like being out late. And so the fact that many of them ended up committing pretty severe harm as adults, I really wanted to explore what it was about their experience at Mt. Meigs that may have contributed to that. So we have audio footage from dozens of these people, mostly men who were students in the 1960s and ended up serving these very extreme sentences. And all of them, literally all of them say that Mt. Meigs is what drove them to make choices later in life that landed them back in the system. So that to me was really what especially drew me in to this project. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, and it sounds like a heavy project, too. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. I mean, you’ve heard the first episode, it’s definitely serious and it definitely has heavy parts, but we worked really, really hard to make it bearable. You know, we don’t want to talk about trauma for trauma’s sake. It’s a hard enough time as it is right now. We didn’t want to make people’s days too much worse. And in the end, I really do think of this as a really hopeful project. You get to hear from a lot of people who made it through, right, Lonnie and Mary and others. And, you know, at the end of the day, it’s a privilege to get to hear these stories that these people haven’t really ever told. No one’s ever really told the story of this place. I’m very grateful for having the chance to host and and write and produce this podcast. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Definitely. Thank you for doing the hard work to tell their stories. The podcast is called Unreformed. It is available everywhere you get pods now and we’ll put the link in the show notes. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]. 




Josie Duffy Rice: Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The death toll from Saturday’s mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, has now risen to 11 people after a person who sustained quote, “extensive injuries” died at an L.A. hospital on Monday. Authorities have not yet named all of the deceased victims pending notification of their family members. The L.A. County coroner said the first ten victims ranged in age from their fifties to seventies. Nine other people were hurt in the attack. Meanwhile, investigators are still searching for a motive. The 72 year old suspect, as we told you on yesterday’s show, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a standoff with police. Sources have told the L.A. Times he may have targeted the dance studio in Monterey Park, along with a second in the nearby city of Alhambra because of a relationship dispute. No one was hurt at the second location because a single unarmed bystander was able to disarm the shooter before he ran away. And separately, as we went to record at 9:30 eastern Monday night, at least seven people were killed and another person was critically injured in two related shootings in Half Moon Bay, a coastal community about 30 miles south of San Francisco. A suspect has reportedly been taken into custody. We don’t have many details just yet, but this is now the second mass shooting in California in just three days. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Four more members of the Oath Keepers were found guilty of seditious conspiracy yesterday, marking the second round of convictions dealt to the extremist group for its involvement in the January 6th riots. The defendants were found guilty of obstructing and conspiring to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results. And this comes after Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and three of his colleagues were convicted of the same crime late last year. The four men will now be under a 24 hour house arrest with limited Internet access until their sentencing. In other January 6th conviction news, Richard Barnett, the man who was famously photographed putting his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk during the riots, was found guilty of all eight counts against him related to the insurrection, including theft of government property. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I find the limited Internet access interesting. 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laugh] 


Josie Duffy Rice: Like how limited? 


Tre’vell Anderson: They said you can’t get on Truth Social honey. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I was about to say that just seems very particular. Over 200 million people in Pakistan were without electricity on Monday after a government energy saving initiative went wrong and triggered a cascade of blackouts across the country. For context, Pakistan is facing a severe economic crisis that has left its government strapped for fuel. Officials said it started as an unusual voltage surge in a southern province, which quickly dominoed to take down the rest of the country’s power grid. Pakistan’s biggest cities, including its economic hub of Karachi, were without electricity all Monday morning and with little to no backup generators available. Many households were left in the dark. Pakistan’s energy minister said yesterday officials were working to restore power across the country in phases, starting with critical facilities like hospitals and airports. 


Tre’vell Anderson: The FDA is looking to make big changes to how Americans should get their COVID vaccine shots. Yesterday, regulators released a proposal that would mirror the recommendations for the flu shot. Anyone who has already received their first two doses would only need to get a booster once a year. This one and done strategy aims to make the process of getting inoculated against COVID much simpler, and annual boosters would match whatever dominant variant is in circulation. If a more dangerous variant were to pop up, the FDA would have an emergency system in place to adapt the updated shot. Kids, older people and others at high risk for COVID complications may still have to get more than one shot a year, just like the flu shot. You thought you were special, Ms. Corona, but turns out you’re just like the rest. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. 


Tre’vell Anderson: An Advisory Committee will decide whether to approve the plan on Thursday. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Just a few days after announcing plans to cut 10,000 jobs that once belonged to humans, Microsoft said yesterday it will embark on a multi-year and multibillion dollar investment in open AI, the research startup behind the viral chat bot system ChatGPT. Microsoft already has a stake in the company, but some reports indicate this latest round of funding could total as much as $10 billion dollars. It’s also been reported that Microsoft is looking to integrate AI technology into its many software and cloud services and even into apps like PowerPoint and Word. Which could only mean that they’re bringing back Clippy with a vengeance. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Shout out to Clippy. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I know. 


Tre’vell Anderson: The legend. Okay.


Josie Duffy Rice: The legend. 


Tre’vell Anderson: The icon. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The icon. [laughter]


Tre’vell Anderson: No way to candy coat the news you’re about to hear. M&M’s announced they will be putting an indefinite pause on their use of the M&M’s spokescandies. Tapping Maya Rudolph to take over their hollow duties instead. The candies known for being red, yellow, green, blue, brown, orange and purple have been discoursed lightning rods over the last few years as the brand has retooled the anthropomorphic candies and their identities to cater to those moved by their imagined inner lives. [laughter] Mm hmm. Most recently, the company announced pouches of quote unquote “all female green, brown and purple M&M’s” because I guess somebody asked for that, causing right wing clowns to tweet balanced things like quote, “this is no laughing matter. It’s a legitimate crisis. Manhood is under attack like no other time in world history” [laugh] which is a very drastic statement, like my Lord. Only time will tell if this move is a stunt within a stunt with the advertising mecca of the Super Bowl on the horizon. Placing my bet now that Rihanna’s bringing out Miss Green to sing an S&M parody during her halftime performance, it’s what the people need. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Imagine how little world history you’d have to know [laughter] to say that whoever said that hasn’t really thought it through. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Also, if some candy, some chocolate candy, that may or may not have nuts on the middle of it, you know, can threaten, you know, your manhood or your ideas and concepts around it. Maybe it wasn’t too tough to begin with. I’m just gonna say. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I agree. Maybe you should ask yourself some questions. Anyway, I am looking forward to how Maya Rudolph gets more involved in this. But uh for now, those are the headlines. [music break] That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Make Skittles woke and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you are into reading and not just personal compliments written by an AI chat bot like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


[spoken together] And they better not develop an AI podcast host. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, I watched iRobot. Okay, y’all better calm down. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Mm hmm. They’re just not going to have the je ne sais quoi. [laughter] That we bring to the– 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. [laughing] [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jocey Coffman and our executive producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.