1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


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Mary Morgan 09

Some of the always well dressed women who worked at the "Institution" as we always called it, attended the Methodist church. We always believed that they were "better off" than most Alderson people and bought their clothes at the grand "Alderson's Store". At least two of these women were very kind to me and my sister Virginia after our mother's untimely death. On more than one Sunday some woman (I don't remember any names) we believed to be a "matron" would take us to the institution for Sunday dinner. We would be in shock and awe. White table cloths, napkins and far more silverware than just one knife, fork and spoon. We sat at small tables in the "staff" dining room and were served genteelly by the inmates who were dressed in waitress uniforms. You can believe that we were on our very best table manners and it was "Yes, Maam" and "No, Maam" throughout the meal. After the meal they would take us to "their cottage". These women were very proud of their cottages and "their girls". We would be introduced and the inmates would ask us all kinds of questions--how old were we, (we were about 10 and 13), how many brothers and sisters, what grade we were in, all the usual questions asked of children. I regret to say we didn't know how or what questions to ask them. They could have been people from a different planet for all we knew. They were all white, I never remember seeing a black inmate on any of these visits, the racial segregation was so complete.

One of the cottages had a piano and I remember playing some songs and all the women would sing. Of course they asked for some "popular" music but I could only play hymns and "Golden Songbook" songs such as Annie Laurie. One Sunday when both Virginia and I had were invited guests we actually sang a duet to the prisoners, "Whispering Hope". The inmates both applauded and several were in tears. We were mystified and embarrassed. We certainly had no concept of what it must have been like to be incarcerated and away from all friends and family. I think probably the "matrons" were bringing just a little change into their dreary routines. And maybe we were being their remote contact with the children many of them had left behind.

Shortly after I moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio , in 2002, I joined in a candlelight peace vigil lining the main street in this small village. I knew only 2 or 3 people but someone introduced me to the woman I was standing alongside. She asked, "I heard you were from Dayton, is that right?' "No, I answered. "I lived in Dayton many years ago but I have moved here from Athens, Ohio.". "Oh, but you were born in Dayton?" "No, I was born in Alderson, West Virginia." She gasped, "Alderson! That is where I spent a year in prison." We immediately became acquainted and are friends today. She introduced me to another woman in Yellow Springs who also spent time in the prison at Alderson, both for civil disobedience. Needless to say we have very different views of the prison coming from different eras and our different status--they were prisoners and I a wide-eyed West Virginia child visitor.

I do think I was privileged to have had a rare, remarkable experience to have been a guest, as a child, in the first Federal Reformatory for Women in the United States. I'm certain it had some slight influence on my present interest in the criminal justice (or injustice) system of the U. S.

 Mary M. Steele Morgan, AHS '42,, age 82.