(St. Mary’s Industrial school before the 1919 fire. Wikipedia Commons)
Though I am hardly old, I have reached an age where some people, particularly those in their undergraduate years, ask questions of me. They ask about the Reagan era, the Punk Movement or dirty old New York as if I may offer some detail overlooked in the present day. In hearing stories from people like my father, born in 1921, I did much the same. Going backwards, history for me was a living document told by those who had been there. Still, at times I suffer from the assumption in thinking all the past somehow was less correct or modern or less effective.
To prove my point, I went looking for the history of St. Mary’s Industrial School at Enoch Pratt Library on Cathedral Street. What I found in the clippings of the Baltimore Sun from around 1900 were preteen arsonists and larcenists who mushed ice cream in policemen’s faces upon their capture. And yes, they stole copper even in 1905. These were children later committed to St. Mary’s Industrial School by the court.
In 1904, 11 year old Joseph Haines of west Baltimore shot and killed his friend, Thomas Gordon, 17, by accident in a drunken fury. He too was committed to St. Mary’s. The three short paragraphs given to Gordon’s death and young Haines judgement left the Sun reader little to glean of the lives and families of either Haines or Gordon. Does this sound familiar?
St. Mary’s Industrial is known as the place Babe Ruth honed his great baseball skill. In 1903 Ruth, age seven, was handed over to the school by his parents. It may also be remembered that his mentor in the game and life was Brother Matthias, a Cape Breton Islander named Martin Bouttlier, who spent his life at the school in west Baltimore. By the time St. Mary’s closed in 1950, after 84 years of service, some 20,000 boys like the Babe would pass through the doors of the school run by the Xavarian Brothers. (Read comments from those who attended the school here.)
By now it is well known that the Catholics do education well. Despite their shortcomings, most recently with the decades long cover up of sexual abuse of children within their ranks, the faith has done some of the best outreach for the poorest of Americans. Like Boy’s Town in Nebraska, St. Mary’s Industrial was, in its time, just as good at imbuing a sense of purpose in each child.
By taking in children mandated by the court or from families who could no longer care for their kith, St. Mary’s provided education, skills training and a viable community for juveniles, many of whom already understood their lot in life was to be poor.
In 1949, the state of Maryland decided to pull funding from St. Mary’s. While the work of the school had proven a great asset to the welfare of young men over the decades, they felt a state run facility might better serve the public. Since then, the idea of orphanages or institutions to rehabilitate the wayward or orphaned has been phased out of child welfare. What has blossomed is juvenile state run institutions, fourteen in Maryland, who seem unable to break through to young men in the way the Xavarians were able to all those years ago.
Common practice these days is to otherwise keep families together in the hope that the dynamic of family will bring about the best results for the child. When family is unable to fully account for the child, the intention then is placement with relatives or lacking that, foster care and if possible, permanent adoption.
In the 150 years since Archbishop Spalding built the first shanty of St. Mary’s in 1866, our way of life has changed in so many ways. The liberties we enjoy in this nation, if we know to use them, are like nothing the world may have known. Even so, many of our nations children still exist in families as if it were the 19th century. Families that do not care for them and a society that does not want them. As a result, many of the lessons we learned 100 years ago about poverty and families need to be relearned.
Of the starting five teens on the hockey team I coached in Patterson Park in 2006, all five now have adult criminal records. Two are currently locked up by the state of Maryland and two others have trials this month. Their charges and convictions range from burglary and drug or weapons possession to murder.
Three of the five boys have never had lasting interactions with their fathers and four of them have mothers suffering long term heroin addiction. Two of the young men have two addicted parents while only one of the parents I have known has had a job. And, they all come from a single block of North Glover Street in east Baltimore.
Each of the five families has had extensive relations with social services long before the law came knocking for their sons. Even so, three of the young men now, before age 21, have children of their own.
And so, the question I have for the reader is this: what was the purpose of keeping families such as these intact?
If a child such as these spends six hours a day in school through just his first five grades, where are the other 18 hours of each day spent? On North Glover Street, where the rule of each day is the parents’ heroin hit, not games with the kids. The three hours a week I spent being a role model for these teenagers could never offset the years of witnessing drug deals, injections, violence and death. While knowing this never changed my course of instruction or mentoring, the facts remain that kids who come from these circumstances are socially isolated and largely doomed to failure.
O’Malley is pushing forward with plans for a new juvenile jail to be built in Baltimore at a cost of more than 70 million dollars. Unless this city changes how it deals with families and juvenile delinquency, I fear the Governor will have no problem filling the new jail. We need to find a way to remove some of these children from their families and change the inevitable trajectory they are on. We need to reopen a school like St. Mary’s Industrial.
The reader may find this otherwise liberal to have veered across the spectrum to conservatism. I think not. Liberalism is afforded only to those whose boundaries are set, learned and appreciated by the individual. That this idea flies directly in the face of current practice in social work does not belay the reality that keeping families together is sometimes not in the best interest of the child.
Faith is a force of nature that, at times, we cannot categorize. Good. Baltimore has a wealth of faith communities to build such an institution. Why not use the original site of St. Mary’s, where Cardinal Gibbons High School sits empty?
We can look to the film ‘Boys of Baraka’ to know a change of environment can foster learning and human growth, especially if it is permanent. As well, the Jesuit model of Cristo Rey schools shows how effective traditional methods can be. With the Black, Catholic and Jewish organizations, we can start with 50 teenagers in a safe yet rigorous setting of skill and learning, of faith and of personal and societal expectations.
I would not deem the young men I coached any more sociopathic than their surroundings. But then that’s the point. North Glover Street is a nexus for the addicted, sex offenders and drug pushers.
Still, juvenile behavior will not change with just one stroke. Baltimore leaders need to think like President Obama with his overall economic policy and go big. Leaders here need to provide a social contract stimulus in the form of drug rehabilitation for the parents, greater enforcement of laws throughout the city, and the option of placing kids in a safer environment so they may thrive.
Robert Emmet Mara has been in Baltimore since 2006. A native New Yorker, Robert came to Baltimore to do three things: work with kids, renovate houses and write a second book of fiction. Since his arrival, he has managed to do all three and more.
He has sought better oversight for his still blighted Harwood neighborhood from the city and has been asked to speak to various community association leaders on the subject of city agency relations.