Abuse, Racism Revisited at Florida Reform School


First opened in 1900, Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys swirled with allegations of cruelty, rape, and physical abuse for nearly all of its 111 years.

Located in the panhandle town of Marianna, Florida, the juvenile reform school was a target of frequent state and federal investigations that were largely ineffective: in 1903, investigators documented that boys were frequently held in leg irons; in 1914, six boys died in a dormitory fire; in 1934, a 13-year-old boy died thirty-eight days after arriving at the school on trespassing charges; and at least ninety-six boys died at the camp between 1914 and 1973. Dozier held thousands of boys over the span of its operation – some as young as eight years old, and many on “charges” as minor as trespassing, truancy, and incorrigibility. In 1963, two of four Black teenagers arrested for attempting to integrate a St. Augustine Woolworth’s were sent to the school for five months.

In June 2011, Florida closed Dozier in the midst of a Department of Justice investigation. That December, the Justice Department released a report concluding that even in 2011, boys at Dozier were being subjected to “conditions that placed them at serious risk of avoidable harm in violation of their rights protected by the Constitution of the United States” due to “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices.” In 2012, students and researchers from the University of South Florida initiated a project to excavate the school ground and locate and identify the remains of boys buried there.

In August 2013, before the digging began, a group of five elderly Black men who were confined at Dozier in the 1950s and 1960s returned to Marianna for the first time in decades to revisit the space and grapple with the memories. As reported byMother Jones magazine this month, the men made the trek in hopes of giving voice to the “Black side” of the Dozier experience, which they felt recent media coverage had ignored.

Until 1967, Dozier was racially segregated, with separate camps, housing, and work assignments for Black and white boys. As John Bonner, 61, described, “on the white side, it was more roomy. You had the industrial shops, the woodworking shop – places the white boy was able to get a certificate. The Black side was the slave side.” Richard Huntly, 67, was 11 when he arrived at Dozier, and spent two years there. While white boys were given vocational work, Mr. Huntly said, he and other Black boys were made to work in the field picking and planting for state profit: “It was kind of like slavery.”

Mr. Bonner also remembered the fear he felt of sleeping in the locked dormitories, knowing staff and older boys alike were free to abuse them at will. Johnny Gaddy, 68, was sent to the school at age 11 and still recalls being disciplined in the school’s infamous “White House,” where he was forced to lie on a bed and beaten with a belt until bloody from the waist down. Mr. Gaddy once saw a boy’s severed hand in the garbage he hauled for burial, and was warned to say nothing about it lest he meet a similar fate.

Combined, the stories of abuse and injustice at the Dozier School paint a picture of systematic exploitation that targeted children made vulnerable by their race and/or class, and which was made possible by a system of criminal justice that, in its zeal to punish, failed to protect those most helpless and in need. Even as Dozier sits closed, similar systems and skewed priorities persist in Florida – and throughout the nation.

In January 2014, University of South Florida researchers announced that they had located the remains of 55 boys in the Dozier campus cemetery — 24 more than are officially accounted for in school records. Researchers are working to identify the remains and causes of death, and expect to find more graves in other locations. Even for some who survived their stays at Dozier, digging up this history has helped to heal long-held wounds.

“When I left Marianna,” Richard Huntly told Mother Jones, “I was thinking that there wasn’t anybody in the world feeling the way that I felt, being taken away so young, being dogged at, being beat the way I was—just a natural slave. But by talking to other guys that went through the same thing, and by going on the grounds at Marianna, I think I’m more prepared to face a lot of things.”