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Colson Whitehead Exhumes The Past In 'The Nickel Boys'

Boys climbing trees at the School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
Boys climbing trees at the School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.

Midway through author Colson Whitehead’s latest novel “The Nickel Boys,” protagonist Elwood Curtis explains that “there are four ways out of Nickel.”

Nickel is Nickel Academy, a fictional reform school in 1960s’ Florida. Elwood is sent there for a minor infraction early in the book.

On Page 145, Elwood explains the four “ways out” – court intervention, serving your time, running away or dying.

“The dead boys were put in the dirt of Boot Hill or released into the care of their family. Some deaths were more nefarious than others. Check the school records, incomplete as they may be. Blunt trauma, shotgun blast. In the first half of the twentieth century, boys who had been leased out to local families wound up dead sometimes. Students were killed while on ‘unauthorized leave.’ Two boys were run over by trucks. These deaths were never investigated. The archeologists at the University of South Florida noticed that the death rates of those who attempted multiple escapes were higher than those who did not. One speculates. As for the unmarked graveyard, it kept its secrets close.”

Whitehead’s book is both the story of one man’s loss of innocence in a horrifying situation… and an extensive look at the traumas inflicted on black Americans during the Jim Crow South.

It’s also based on a true story.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (also called the Florida State Reform School and the Florida Industrial School) opened in the town of Marianna back in 1900. It took in hundreds of troubled children for more than a century before closing its doors in 2011.

Since then, many of the former students have come forward with gruesome stories of abuse at the hands of the staff.

Roger Kiser attended the school in the late 1950s. NPR spoke to him in 2012

“There’s just too many stories,” Kiser says. “I know of one that I personally saw die in the bathtub that had been beaten half to death. I thought he’d been mauled by the dogs because I thought he had ran. I never did find out the true story on that. There was the boy I saw who was dead who came out of the dryer. They put him in one of those large dryers.”

Anthropologists from the University of South Florida are currently investigating 27 “anomalies” that could be unmarked graves on the school grounds.

State investigators say 31 former students are interred in a cemetery on the grounds, but that records show another 50 died while the school was operational. There is no indication of where they are buried.

We talk with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel, and persons investigating – and living with the memory of – the real-life events his story is based on.


Colson Whitehead, Author, “The Nickel Boys” and “The Underground Railroad”; @colsonwhitehead

Ben Montgomery, Visiting journalism professor, the University of South Florida; former investigative reporter, The Tampa Bay Times; @gangrey

Charlie Fudge, Former inmate, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (1960-61)

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5