Feb 17, 2014
After years of organized pressure and lawsuits from victims and their families, the Governor of Florida finally allowed children’s bodies to be exhumed on the campus of what was once the U.S.’s largest “reform school” for boys, in rural Marianna in the Florida Panhandle.
Forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida announced in January that 55 bodies had been discovered and sent for DNA testing. In February, a wider search for bodies began. State, school and historical records indicate at least 98 deaths occurred at Dozier Reform School between 1913 and 1960. In addition, researcher Andre Puel identified admission records for 169 “escaped” boys where records show “they were not discharged.” There is no record of what happened to them.
Over 300 black and white former residents from the 1940's, 50's, and 60's – now senior citizens – have stepped forward to describe life at this “campus.” Most were from very poor families and were taken there – some with no legal hearing – for the “crime” of not being at school.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Dozier had more than 100 year’s history of problems. “The first scandal came in 1903, a mere three years after the school opened. Investigators found children [as young as age 6] ‘in irons, just as common criminals.’”
According to a press release by the Black Boys at Dozier Reform School, “Some of the black boys were taken to local farms and plantations to work from sunup to sundown planting and harvesting crops.... Over the years, the facility operated as a farm and made millions of dollars off the free labor of the boys at Dozier.”
Survivors issued more statements in a gripping press conference on August 4, 2013. One former resident, John Gaddy, told of being 11 years old when police sent him to Dozier. He said that guards would send dogs after boys who tried to escape, and runaways were not seen again.
He told how when he and a friend were taking kitchen scraps to the hogs on one occasion, he looked into the garbage pit. “That looks just like a boy’s hand right there,” John said. His friend said, “Don’t ever say that again. If you don’t want to be like that, don’t ever say that again.”
Another former resident, Richard Huntley, who was an orphan, testified: "You speak of injustice. What do you think when children are beaten, raped, abused and worked like slaves in the milk area. What do you think when you get beat until the blood runs down your legs and your lower body feels numb, knowing that at any given moment at Dozier you could become one of the boys buried there in the woods."
Another former resident, John Bonner, says that by the late 60's, the school was being integrated, so Bonner lived on both sides of the campus during his stay.
"This was a living hell for many boys, black and white. This school destroyed the lives of many boys, black and white. I am back today seeking justice and closure. I will not abandon these boys buried here for they have been forgotten and denied far too long and justice is near."
The state of Florida closed the school – but not until 2011! The state now wants to sell the 1400-acre property. However, family members of deceased boys were able to get a judge to stop the sale until bodies can be identified.
Florida is not alone. Other states have stories similar to Dozier, but Florida is the first case of organized victims and families pressing for justice. May it be the first of many fights!