Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: The Nickel Boys

By Lynn Willoughby

The Nickel Boys ~ Colson Whitehead

This is not a true story, but it is based on an actual home for juvenile boys and the archaeological evidence and forensic studies of the grave sites found on the grounds after the 111 years the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was active.  The location was near Marianna, Florida.

In his book, the author calls it the Nickel Academy for Boys and it is located near Tampa, Florida.

The work assignments – farming, printing, brick making, painting and construction work for local residents are the same as at the non-fictional school.  As is the leasing out of black boys to local families to be worked hard – sometimes to death.  I expect the beatings, rapes and the use of sweat boxes and dark cells were the same also.  This is not an easy book to read.

Elwood is a very bright high school student being raised by his grandmother.  He is black and attends a disadvantaged school in the 1960s.  He reads and listens to everything by Martin Luther King Jr and is very influenced by King, writing snippets on slips of paper for inspiration.

A new teacher arrives at Elwood’s school, sees his potential and makes arrangements for him to attend some college classes, free of charge.  On his first day, Elwood is hitch-hiking to the college and gets picked up by a man who is driving a car he has stolen.  They are stopped by the police, the black driver is arrested and Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for Boys.

There are four ways out of Nickel – serve your term, the court might intervene if you have the money for your case to be re-opened, you could die or you could run.  Death was often the way out for those on the black side of campus, where the food and medical supplies were bootlegged to local restaurants and pharmacies, the staff were sadistic, the schooling was a joke, malnutrition and neglect were rampant.  A quote by King kept Elwood from being swept under. …”we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebodyness.”  

This book is exceptionally well written and well researched.  It is heart breaking, but I will read more by this author, once I have recovered.

  • The Underground Railroad
  • Hides the Hurt
  • and several others

Who Knew?

“You can compare this case (Nickel Academy) to what happened in Catholic orphanages or Aboriginal camps.  Any place where you have corrupt, malevolent authority figures who can exert their will on the innocent and powerless, then you are going to have this – the school as a plantation.”  ~ Colson Whitehead

Related Articles

Leave a Reply