Shot in Herring’s native Mississippi, “Neverlasting City” explores the Columbia Training School, a former juvenile detention center for girls. A decade after the school was closed amidst investigations of systemic abuse and sexual assault, its neglected buildings remain intact, overgrown, and unexposed. To capture the Training School’s story, Herring weaves her images with text from the U.S. Department of Justice report that led to the school’s closure. The braid she forms frames the role of time and decay on the landscapes and decrepit remains of these abandoned grounds. Herring’s illustrative, graphic images invite the reader to contemplate toll of lost childhood, the ruin that abuse brings, and the detailed attention that formative years deserve. vision for each work.
In 1918, city officials in Columbia, Mississippi, celebrated a ribbon cutting at the Columbia Training School, a correctional facility for misguided or otherwise delinquent youth. By farming its 3,300 acres, the Training School existed for decades as a self-sufficient community. In those years, the Training School maintained a quiet but consistent role in the Marion County area, creating jobs and making news only on those rare occasions when an internee escaped.
Beginning in the era of forced integration, boys were slowly moved to a similar facility near Jackson, Mississippi, making the Training School an all-girls facility. No longer able to maintain its self-sufficiency through forced labor, the Training School increasingly relied on the Mississippi legislature for funding. Under tightened budgets, staff training was shortened, medical resources were constricted, and renovations were stalled. Conditions at the Training School steadily worsened. In 2002, allegations of sexual assault, physical abuse, and medical neglect prompted the United States Department of Justice to open the investigation that would close the Training School.
Since 2008, the school’s facilities have stood in quiet abandonment, with only small parts of its front offices being re-purposed by a local yoga studio. The rest of the vast, once-self-suf f icient city remains untouched, af fected by nothing, save weather and time. Its sinuous roads, overgrown fields, and many empty rooms leave one consumed by the haste of how it was left. Binders of school evaluations dated summer 2008 sit open on cedar desks, faucets drip and run, dishes sit washed, stacked and waiting to be used by girls who are now a decade gone.
That clocks slay time may be true, but I wonder what Mr. Faulkner might have said to Columbia, to the Training School, where second-hands fail even to quiver on the many clock faces throughout the school’s halls and rooms. Time is told in shadows and seasons, by mauve asters and old trees, the first sundials. Hours and years are, once more, wasted measures, unknown and unmarked on the face of nature’s time. Right now, the first summer heat is the time for blackberry bushes, kudzu vines, and moss.
In the century since the ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the Training School, much has changed for Mississippi. In 1918, neither women nor African-Americans could vote, reform schools could force juveniles to work the fields, and Governor Theodore Bilbo was a sworn member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. Since that time, Mississippi has made massive strides in race relations, gender equality, and legislative integrity. Its culture has given the world Robert Johnson, William Faulkner, Fannie Lou Hamer, Morgan Freeman, Elvis, and Oprah. While Mississippi’s social progress and rich culture deserve celebration, much work remains for Mississippi’s children.
This work explores a place that witnessed untold childhood hurt. Even now, a sense of loss per vades the premises, where small things grow and big things decay, where human errors rot and nature is reclaiming its worn ground. It’s not the land that’s dead, but something in the land, about the land, throughout the place. The humid Mississippi air chokes the empty cells and guards’ houses with their own sodden, long-born burdens. And yet native blooms insist on living, and long vines grow and green moss creeps, and lily pads quilt the surface of what was the bathing pool.
What survives, stamped on these lifeless things that will rot forever among the
magnolias, beneath the aged oaks, between these immitigable, knowing pines?
What might be made of this vast heap of half-broken things, of this elegant decline, of all
that ’s blooming, of all that ’s been stolen, lost and set ablaze in these acres of insane green?
Look away, Dixieland, while you can.