Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: "My Escape Attempt"

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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Maybe it wasn't an actual escape attempt so much as it was a desire to get away from the confines of the institution for a while. Dorothy's recollections reveal how frustrating that confinement was for many of the residents. As she would tell incidents like the ones related here, she couldn't help laughing about it, though you could hear some of the resentment she still felt even after all the years that had passed.

Photo by Naaman Fletcher
“They wouldn’t let you go nowhere you wanted to. Every night they would get us in the ward and make us stand by our beds. Then they would count us to see if any of us was missing. One time they was a bunch of ‘em got out the ward window. They was fixin’ to run away, and they did run. It was 3 or 4 of them. One of the ­­staff was sittin’ there on the hospital porch countin’ ‘em as they went out. His name was Clarence Smitherman, the superintendant of the Boys’ Building. They didn’t get very far – every one of them got caught.”

“They wouldn’t let us go anywhere except to the dining room and the school, sometimes to the place where we cleaned vegetables or to the okra patch. They wouldn’t let us leave the premises. I tried to run away one time – me and two or three others. I reckon I was about 15 or 16.  We broke a hole in the hedge and got through. We didn’t know where we would go except we just wanted to go anywhere we could. Me and another girl ran around the building, the other two just stood there. One of them got to acting silly and she got us caught. She said, ‘Ya’ll two idiots, come back here!’ I said, ‘Well, ya’ll was in to it to, ya’ll was a bigger idiot than we were – you didn’t run like we did, ya’ll just stood there.’  She was too scared to move, and she got us caught. They punished us (she laughed as she spoke) for running around the building.  They took us over to the lower-type building. They punished us by takin' us to a lower grade building and said we had to stay two weeks. We had to bath the lower-type people that didn’t know to bathe theirself. We had to feed ‘em and dress ‘em and put ‘em to bed. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we are helping them we’re helping Jesus.’  I got tired of it, though, and I went on back to my building before they even told me to.”

“The lower grade building was where people didn’t know how to bath themselves or dress themselves, and they didn’t really know to go to the bathroom. They had extra staff over there to watch them. They asked me why I left from over there and went back to my building before they said I could go. I told them I didn’t want to stay over there because they were so mean to the ones that couldn’t take care of themselves. They used to tie them to the benches. Some of them were a lot older and bigger than I was. I never was mean to them as far as I remember.  For some of them I used to wash and roll their hair. They never would pay us, but sometimes they would give us fruit and things like that – the ones that I did for. They would get it from the canteen and sometimes they would give me part of it.”

Partlow Gate  by Naaman Fletcher

“I really didn’t like it at Partlow, and they told a lie in order to get me there. I thought we could come and go as we pleased, but when I got there, I found out different. They told us where we had to be all the time, and when they would get us inside, then they would lock the door. I spent 35 years of my life there.”

“There was one girl that got out and they wrote a book about her. The name of it was Della from Hell*.  She spent nearly all her life there, from the time she was three years old until she was grown. I heard talk about the book but I never did see it or read it. I well remember that girl because she used to sing in the choir the same time I did.  She used to do people’s hair. She was a beautiful thing. She lived in the same building I lived in. Her mother’s name was Ruby Rogers, and her name was Della Raye Rogers.  She worked in the main dining room and she waited on the tables where the handicapped were. Later on she started working at the beauty parlor.”

Photo by Naaman Fletcher

Next time we will learn about Dorothy’s brief reprieve outside of the institution.


* I was curious about the book Dorothy mentioned, which she said someone had told her about. I did some research and discovered that the book she was referring to is actually titled: Della Raye: A Girl Who Grew Up in Hell and Emerged Whole, by Gary Penley (Pelican Publishing, January 31, 2002).

About the Photographs: The pictures above were taken by Naaman Fletcher on the premises of Partlow State School years after the institution was closed down. They are featured on his blog What's Left of Birmingham at .

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