The prologue introduces “a Nickel Boy who goes by the name Elwood Curtis,” now an adult living in New York City. He doesn’t talk about his time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. He has never visited, and he hasn’t made any attempt to connect with other former students, even when they began sharing their traumatic stories after the school closed down five years prior. However, when he learns that a “secret graveyard” has been discovered by college archaeology students, he realizes that he must return to Florida and tell his own story.
For Christmas in 1962, Elwood receives an album of recorded speeches given by Martin Luther King, Jr., which he listens to repeatedly. Elwood is being raised by his grandmother, Harriet, who doesn’t let him listen to popular music and keeps a close eye on him. Elwood is a straight-A student. Since the age of nine, Elwood has spent every afternoon in the kitchen of the Richmond Hotel, where Harriet works and where his mother and great-grandmother worked too. At first the older men in the kitchen play games with him, including staging races to see who can dry dishes the fastest. Later, kitchen staff use the game to take advantage of Elwood’s kind and trusting nature. When the staff find a set of encyclopedias left in a room by a traveling salesman, they trick Elwood into beating them in a dish-drying competition, using the encyclopedias as the reward. The staff let him haul the heavy boxes home on the bus, not revealing that the pages are blank in every volume but one. Feeling used and hurt, Elwood doesn’t go back to the hotel.
After the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that schools can’t be segregated, Elwood is always looking for signs of integration and change. His grandmother Harriet isn’t as hopeful. Harriet and Elwood live in Frenchtown, a Black neighborhood in Tallahassee, Florida. At 13, Elwood gets a job at Marconi’s Tobacco & Cigars, a convenience store run by an Italian man named Mr. Marconi. Elwood helps with the store and spends time reading about the Civil Rights Movement in Life magazine. Mr. Marconi overlooks it when young people steal candy, but one day Elwood tells two boys from the neighborhood to return the candy they have taken. On his way home, the boys ambush him and beat him up, giving him a black eye.
Elwood’s grandmother and Mr. Marconi don’t understand Elwood’s “lack of sense;” they want him to avoid conflict with people. Listening to the speeches by Dr. King, Elwood understands that if he turns a blind eye to people committing wrong-doings, it compromises his dignity and sense of self-worth. He feels even more connected to Martin Luther King, Jr., because he told his six-year-old daughter Yolanda that she couldn’t go to Fun Town amusement park because she was Black, and six years old is the age at which Elwood’s parents abandoned him.
In his junior year of high school, Elwood meets and is mentored by a new teacher, Mr. Hill. The students receive textbooks that were previously used by students at a white high school, who filled the pages with racial slurs. Mr. Hill has the students black out the slurs with markers before they use the books. Mr. Hill actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. He connects history to the current moment. Recognizing Elwood’s interest in the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Hill gives him a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
That summer, local college students hold protests to integrate the local movie theater. Elwood joins in and Mr. Hill introduces him to other students from Lincoln High School. Elwood’s grandmother disapproves of his participation in the protest and takes away his record player for two weeks, but Elwood starts to dream about what his life will be like in college. That summer, Mr. Hill invites Elwood to participate in a program taking free college courses while still a senior in high school. His grandmother is proud of him and Mr. Marconi gifts him a fountain pen. The college is seven miles south of Tallahassee, and Elwood hitches a ride with a Black man named Rodney. Halfway there, the police pull them over and Elwood learns that Rodney has stolen the car.
A judge sentences Elwood to a reform school called Nickel Academy, and Elwood is handcuffed and put in the back seat of a state vehicle. He’s taken to the school with two white boys, one of whom was arrested for truancy and the other who’s being punished for breaking a pharmacy window. The officer tells them that Elwood is a car thief. At first sight, Elwood thinks that Nickel looks more like a college campus than a prison—it even has a football field. Once inside the administration building, Superintendent Maynard Spencer, a large white man, gives the three boys a brief speech and touches his keychain threateningly.
When they get their uniforms, Elwood is directed to the worn-out clothing in the “colored” section. The white boys are sent downhill to their dormitory, and Elwood is brought by his housemaster, a Black man named Blakely, uphill to his dormitory, Cleveland. Blakely encourages Elwood to learn manual labor-related skills at Nickel that he can put to use when he is released back into society. Blakely tells Elwood that work will alternate with school, and Elwood tells Blakely that he hopes to get into advanced classes. Elwood is assigned to a bed in a room filled with rows of bunkbeds, and though he tries to reassure himself that most of the boys don’t look too rough and that Nickel is a school, not a prison, he still has to hide his tears. Before he falls asleep, he hears a loud, frightening, mechanical sound outside.
Elwood meets several boys, including Turner, who will become his best friend at Nickel. Desmond, a boy from the next bunk, shows Elwood around. Desmond takes Elwood to his classroom, where he is shocked by the lack of instruction and outdated, elementary school materials. Elwood asks the teacher if he can be given more advanced materials. In the afternoon, Elwood is sent to join the grounds crew, where a half-Mexican teenager named Jaimie shows him around. Jaimie is constantly shifted from campus to campus because the administration can’t decide if he is Black or white. The boys warn Elwood to stay away from a white building in the center of campus called the White House.
Later, Elwood explores the disgusting rec room in Cleveland dormitory. Desmond tells him the way to succeed at Nickel is to stay out of trouble, do what he’s told, and try to get out early by earning merits and climbing the ranks from Grub to Explorer to Pioneer to Ace. Elwood thinks of a speech from his Martin Luther King, Jr., record and vows to get out of Nickel quickly by earning merits. However, later that day in the bathroom he sees a small boy, Corey, being bullied by two boys from his breakfast table, Lonnie and Black Mike. Elwood steps forward to intervene and Black Mike punches him. A white houseman writes down all four boys’ names and says Mr. Spencer will handle the situation.
That night at 1 a.m., Mr. Spencer and a white houseman named Earl take Elwood, Corey, Lonnie, and Black Mike from the dormitory to the White House, which the white boys call the Ice Cream Factory because of the multiple colors of the bruises they receive there. The boys are taken one by one into the front room and beaten mercilessly by Spencer with “Black Beauty,” a leather strap with a wood handle. The number of times each boy is whipped is random, and no one is asked what happened in the bathroom. Elwood is beaten so many times he loses consciousness. A large industrial fan, which makes the mechanical noise Elwood heard in his room the night before, drowns out the sound of the boy’s cries.
Elwood’s grandmother Harriet remembers the unfair treatment that caused the death of her grandfather and father. She reflects on her daughter Evelyn, who was a neglectful mother to Elwood, and Evelyn’s husband Percy, who became bitter after the racist treatment he faced when he returned from serving as a soldier during World War II. The couple ran away during the night and left their son behind. The most painful goodbye Harriet faced, however, was when Elwood was taken to Nickel. When she goes to visit him, she is told he is sick. Elwood is actually in the Nickel hospital healing from his beating in the White House. He lies on his stomach while the wounds on his back and legs heal for the next two weeks.
Turner eats soap powder to fake an illness so that he can get into the infirmary and visit Elwood for a few days. They listen to the radio, joke with each other, and Turner shares his ideas about how the world works. Turner tells Elwood he must realize that people are mean and racist, and that he should try to avoid conflict. Elwood, however, believes that reform is coming through the Civil Rights Movement, and that people will change and act justly when they are confronted by injustice. Once healed, Elwood sees the scars on his legs and feels ashamed. He doesn’t tell his grandmother about the beating when she comes to visit.
Elwood returns to regular life at Nickel, where he realizes there is no rhyme or reason to punishment or the merit system, and no way to know if he’s working his way toward early release. On Turner’s recommendation, Elwood gets a job doing “Community Service” with a young white man named Harper. Harper and the two boys spend the morning in the town of Eleanor, bringing food, medicine, and other items meant to be used for the Black boys at Nickel and distributing them to local businessmen. The businessmen give Harper envelopes of money, which he passes along to Superintendent Spencer, who then passes them along to his boss, Director Hardee. When they’re done with deliveries, Harper drops Elwood and Turner off at the home of Mrs. Davis, the wife of the fire chief, who is on the board of directors of Nickel. Harper goes to see his girlfriend while Elwood and Turner paint the Davis’ gazebo.
Turner tells Elwood why he was sent to Nickel for this, his second time. Turner worked at a bowling alley setting up bowling pins after customers knocked them down. In order to get tips, he would joke and make faces as he did his job. One night, the Black man who worked in the burger stand tells Turner that acting like a fool shows he has no self-respect. After that, Turner is mean to the customers until a white boy chases him around the bowling alley. A week later, Turner throws a cinderblock through the white boy’s car window. He is arrested and sent to Nickel. Elwood gets a notebook, and each night he records the names and places they visited and what they delivered.
Every year at Nickel, there’s a boxing match between the best Black student boxer and the best white student boxer. This year, a large, violent bully named Griff will box on behalf of the Black students, and although he bullies them, the Black students all cheer for Griff. A victory by Griff is seen as a victory for all the Black students. Turner is hiding in the warehouse when he overhears Superintendent Spencer telling Griff to lose the fight on purpose by pretending to be knocked out in the third round. When Elwood asks what the consequences will be if Griff doesn’t lose, Turner shows Elwood two large oak trees with iron rings embedded in them. He tells Elwood that when Spencer says he’ll take someone “out back,” he means that the person will be shackled between the two trees and beaten to death.
Director Hardee and other white supporters of the school come to watch the boxing matches and bet on the fight. Griff goes up against Big Chet, a formidable white opponent. The fight is evenly matched, but Griff doesn’t fall in the third round. When he is declared the winner, Griff yells to Spencer that he thought they had fought only two rounds so far. That night, Griff is taken “out back” and beaten to death. The students convince themselves that Griff won on purpose, and that he escaped. However, his body is one of those dug up in the unmarked cemetery 50 years later.
The Nickel boys prepare for the Christmas Festival, an annual event that draws people from miles around, who pay to see the lights and holiday displays on campus. The white boys do the big projects and string the lights, and the Black boys paint and fix displays. Meanwhile, Desmond has found a green can of powder that the boys are told is horse medicine. Desmond, Jaimie, Turner, and Elwood think about slipping some into a houseman’s drink at the staff Christmas luncheon. The day of the luncheon, Elwood and Turner are doing Community Service, and Harper leaves them downtown alone. Elwood and Turner walk the streets, and Turner says that if he were to run away he’d go alone, steal clothes in town, then go south and east, which would be unexpected. When they get back to Nickel, they learn that Earl has been taken to the hospital, vomiting blood. They think that Jaimie poisoned Earl, even though he denies it. Earl lives and Spencer blames Earl’s weak constitution, so the boys escape suspicion. That night Turner and Elwood look at the Christmas light display and feel satisfied.
In 1975, Elwood is living in New York City. It’s a hot Fourth of July holiday, and the sanitation workers are striking, so garbage is piling up on the streets. Elwood’s girlfriend Denise goes out to buy ice for rum and cokes. Elwood reflects on his arrival in New York in 1968 during a famous garbage strike. After working several other jobs, Elwood now works for a moving company. He has back problems from lifting heavy things. Elwood met Denise while he was getting his GED and she was teaching ESL students in the classroom next door. Elwood and Denise watch the movie The Defiant Ones about a prison escape, then they have sex and go to bed. The next day Elwood is planning on buying a used van so he can start his own moving company. He later realizes that he chose the name Ace Moving because Ace was the highest level you could achieve at Nickel, and once you reached it you “graduated.”
The narrator recounts four ways to get out of Nickel. The first is to “serve your time”–either your sentence, the time it took to advance to Ace, or the time until you turned 18 years old. The second is for the court to intervene, and every now and then a judge overturned a sentence. The third is to die, either from natural causes combined with the brutality and neglect of Nickel, or from abuse at the hands of the Nickel staff. The fourth is to run away. The narrator tells the story of Clayton Smith, who ran away after being sexually abused by a houseman, Freddie Rich. Clayton tried to hitchhike to his sister’s house in Gainesville, Florida, but the man who picked him up was a former mayor of Eleanor and a member of the board of directors at Nickel. He drove Clayton back to Nickel, where he was beaten to death and buried in the secret cemetery.
Elwood has given up fighting until his grandmother Harriet comes for a visit, looking frail and sad. She tells Elwood that their lawyer left town with the $200 she and Mr. Marconi had paid the lawyer to help Elwood obtain an early release. Elwood reassures Harriet that he is okay, but one sleepless night he resolves to get out of Nickel by exposing the corruption there and getting the school closed down. Elwood is ready to fight for justice again.
In the 1980s, Elwood is watching the New York Marathon when he is recognized by someone he knew at Nickel, a fellow student called Chickie Pete. Although Elwood usually ignores or hides from people he recognizes from Nickel, he goes for a beer with Chickie Pete. Elwood learns that Chickie Pete just left a rehab program and has no job and no place to live. Elwood tells Chickie Pete about Ace Moving but doesn’t reveal how successful he has become. Elwood feels bad about being alone in life and hates that Nickel boys are so traumatized that they can never really succeed in being “normal.” Chickie Pete asks Elwood for a job and gives Elwood his information on a napkin. Chickie Pete also reveals that he doesn’t remember Elwood’s escape. Elwood is disappointed as he had hoped his escape would have made him a legend at Nickel. Elwood takes a cab home and throws the napkin out the window.
At Nickel, the boys spend two days fixing up the facilities before a “surprise” state inspection. In the past, a newspaper report with allegations of fraud or abuse had triggered inspections, but afterward only small actions were taken. This inspection is routine. While Elwood and Turner are clearing out the basement of one of Nickel’s financial supporters, Elwood tells Turner that he has been keeping a record of the Community Service deliveries and is going to give an account of abuses at Nickel to one of the inspectors. Turner begs him not to do it, but Elwood believes he is following the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr., and recalls excerpts from the speeches he used to listen to. Elwood believes that most people have good hearts, and that when confronted by injustice, they will do the right thing. He thinks of the success of Rosa Parks, sit-ins, and integration of schools. Elwood believes that even if officials don’t want to do what is just, they will at least enforce the law. He thinks the inspectors will do the right thing because it is their job.
On the day of the inspection, Elwood looks for his chance to give the documents to an inspector but is thwarted when he’s sent to the farm fields after lunch, Turner volunteers to give the notebook to an inspector. Elwood isn’t sure Turner will do it, but later Turner says he gave it to the inspector who “looked like JFK,” wrapping it in a school newspaper and handing it to the man through his car window. For two days, nothing happens. Then Spencer and his new man, Hennepin, come for Elwood in the middle of the night and take him to the White House for a beating.
In the 2000s, Elwood waits for Millie, his wife of ten years, at a restaurant in Harlem, in a gentrified neighborhood called Hamilton Heights. Ace Moving is successful and Elwood has a secretary and a fleet of trucks. He remembers being at the building in the 1970s and moving the belongings of an old woman who had died alone in an upstairs apartment. The job had made Elwood afraid that he would die alone too, and he associated that kind of sad, lonely death with the trauma of Nickel.
After the White House beating, Elwood is taken to a secret cell, an empty, dimly lit room on the third floor of Cleveland dormitory. Although solitary confinement is illegal, it has existed at Nickel since the school was built. Elwood is left in the cell for three weeks, with Spencer and Hennepin returning at one point to beat him. During his isolation, he thinks of the impossible instructions of Martin Luther King, Jr.: to love those who harm you. Elwood becomes disillusioned and feels alone and outcast.
One night, Turner shows up with Elwood’s clothes, and the two escape. They make their way to town, where they take bikes that they once cleared out of a basement as part of Community Service. They ride all night and through the next day to get to Tallahassee. Just outside town, Turner hears a vehicle behind them and turns to see that it is the Nickel Community Service van. He and Elwood jump off their bikes and run through a field as Hennepin and Harper chase after them with rifles. Hennepin shoots first and misses. Turner turns around to see Harper shoot and kill Elwood, and watches as Elwood falls with his arms outstretched. Turner keeps running, leaving Elwood behind.
Turner, who started going by Elwood Curtis’s name two weeks after he escaped from Nickel, is checking in for his flight to Tallahassee, Florida. It’s 2014, and he’s returning to Nickel to talk about what happened to him and to Elwood. The night before his trip, Turner shows his wife Millie two articles about Nickel, and admits that he was sentenced there as a teenager. He also tells her that he took Elwood’s name after Elwood was murdered. Millie and Turner talk late into the night about his horrific experience and the suffering he endured, crying and holding each other. Turner tells Millie that his first name is really Jack, but says no one except his mother has ever called him that.
Turner flies to Tallahassee, thinking about the other former students who are going to tell their stories at a press conference. Turner will be the only Black student to testify, and no one knows he is coming. He checks into his hotel, a Radisson, and orders a hamburger at the restaurant, reading on the menu that the hotel used to be called the Richmond. Turner doesn’t remember that this is the hotel where Elwood used to sit in the kitchen as a child, watching the dining room and waiting hopefully for the day when a Black person would be able to eat there.