Tennessee State Training School

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Tennessee State Training School
Opened 1911
Closed 1971
Current Status Demolished
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Jordonia, TN
Alternate Names
  • State Training School for Boys at Jordonia
  • Spencer Youth Center


From the time of its founding in 1911 to its closing in 1971, "Jordonia" — once a quiet little community in northwestern Davidson County now considered part of Bordeaux — became a word well known to school kids across Tennessee. Thanks to the institution for boys, it meant "reform school," incarceration and chilling punishment for bad behavior. White students were threatened with that word. African-American ones heard "Pikeville" — in Bledsoe County where a similar facility for black youths was located. Much like today's facilities for troubled youths, their reputations were sometimes unfair and other times deserved. Also like today, recurring escapes, staffing and funding proved to be constant problems.

Lacy Elrod, named superintendent of the Jordonia facility in 1939, came from an education background and wanted to replace the facility's penal aspects with those of learning. Just four years earlier, guards had been indicted for mistreating inmates.By the early 1940s, conditions had already degenerated. A series of stories by later Pulitzer Prize winner Nat Caldwell in The Tennessean included such 1942 headlines as:

"Last Illegally Used on Boys, State Official Admits Whippings by Guards at School Forbidden" and "Jordonia Guards on Probation … " with a state official saying "He'll Fire Drunks and Inefficient Workers."

In 1948, new Superintendent Fain C. Potter was determined to upgrade the overcrowding and conditions. He found 68 of the children housed there, those between age 8 and 12, were sharing a single room with cracked plaster in a 30-year-old building.

The 260 older kids were crowded into bunk beds in three buildings, none of which was "fireproof." Expansion was Potter's push. His dream was not fully realized until 1956 when the 1918 and 1942 buildings were finally replaced with a 200-bed modern dormitory and an administration building, for a total of $547,000 in state funds, plus another $310,000 96-bed dorm. By 1953, Jordonia was limited to boys ages 12-17, but the school still had three under 12 among its 275 population.

The story of Jordonia's counterpart for blacks in Pikeville on the Cumberland Plateau was even worse. Attention was not focused on its conditions until a violent series of events in 1944 that included two murders and a "lynching." Both the wife and 19-year-old daughter of H.E. Scott, superintendent of the State Training and Agricultural School for Negro Boys, were fatally assaulted with a variety of axes and knives. A student at the school was accused and arrested. Before James T. Scales, 17, the trusty charged, could go to court, he was forcibly removed by a group of men from the Bledsoe County Jail, returned to the school site and shot to death by a single mob participant there. The vigilante killing went unsolved, despite rewards offered at the time by Nashville ministers and Vito Marcantonio's International Labor Defense fund.

A state probe of the Pikeville facility that was prompted by the violence revealed the "school" had no instruction "of any sort," and that its buildings "were not habitable for human beings." Boys were forced in some cases to sleep two to three per bed because of overcrowding. One room had only 43 beds for 93 youths. Sometimes filthy mattresses on the floor were the only choice. The young inmates had to prepare their own food, served on unsterilized metal plates in a dining room described as "cold, with broken windows and doors, gloomy, dirty and bad-smelling." But by December of 1945, Pikeville also had been turned around, according to news accounts. Modern, fire-resistant concrete-block dorms replaced the old ones. Food was much improved.

Much of the credit was given to a new superintendent, Lake Russell. During the first month of his tenure, escapes were reported to have dropped from 15 monthly to none. Nashville's Jordonia the same year was still experiencing them. Three youthful escapees were arrested in Memphis after a "wild 10-mile chase" that ended with their car crashing into a storefront window. In 1948, the bodies of two 15-year-old Jordonia escapees were found in the Cumberland River. Another that year turned himself in, "tired and hungry after three days." By 1965, the state's youth centers were integrated. In 1971, Jordonia became the Spencer Youth Center and Pikeville had been replaced by the James M. Taft Youth Center.

In 1977, 14- to 18-year-old property offenders were being sent to Spencer and repeat offenders, or those who had committed crimes against people, were sent to Taft. The next year, corporal punishment was banished at juvenile institutions. Today, Spencer Youth Center has been replaced by Woodland Hills Youth Development Center at 3965 Stewarts Lane. Opened in 1990, it once served up to 120 male students from Middle Tennessee and 24 females from across the state.