White House Boys
The bodies of 100, mostly black, boys are found at a Fla. reform school
The first night 13-year-old Robert Straley arrived to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 1963, he initially thought it was a decent place to stay. Sent there after problems at home with his mother, Straley found himself sitting with other newcomers to a Florida state reform school located in the Panhandle community of Marianna off Interstate 10. He’d run away from home three different times, which is the main reason he ended up at Dozier.
“It looked like a college campus,” he recalled in an interview with Loop 21. “I thought it was nice, but some of the other boys wanted to leave. I didn’t.”
Someone who overheard the speculative conversation informed the administrators and later that night Straley and five other boys were taken to an 11-room, cinder block building called the “White House” where they tragically discovered the Dozier School was far unlike any normal institution of education.
“They whipped me over 40 times,” Straley said, “with a leather whip. The kind used on slaves.”
For over a century, the Dozier School was dogged by whispered rumors of abominable violence against the scores of juvenile boys who were sent there, including flogging, rape, neglect, disappearances and murder. Most former students like Straley struggled to heal in the years after their release, but new evidence may buttress the collective claim they’ve been making since the 1950s, which is that Dozier represents the worst case of institutional abuse of children in modern American history.
In December, researchers from the University of South Florida in Tampa released preliminary findings of research into the deaths which occurred at Dozier, also known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys, and Florida State Reform School, from its opening in 1900 until its closing a century later in 2011.
The results of a Florida state police investigation several years prior led them to believe that there were 31 designated gravesites on the campus grounds. Instead, they turned up 50 graves and evidence that at least 100 people died there from 1914-1973, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-American.
“The black boys had it worse than we did, which is why so many died,” explained Robert Dean Kiser, author of "The White House Boys-An American Tragedy," and a survivor of the Dozier School.
Kiser was sent there twice within a year and a half, at the age of 12 years. “It wasn’t as bad for me because I was an orphan from the age of 2, 3 years old. The state of Florida was my guardian. They treated the black boys at the school worse on the inside than they did those who were living outside, in the community. Most of the boys were there for very minor crimes like skipping school, smoking, listening to rock n’ roll music. If you were smiling, eating too slowly, walking too fast or doing anything the people who worked there didn’t like, they could beat or rape you. Now, we’re finding the bodies.”
(Below, see a clip of alleged abuse at the Dozier school in 2007. Skip to 4:40.)
The Dozier School was situated in Marianna, Jackson County, which rests comfortably in the Florida Panhandle. Its history extending back to the late 19th century is a bitter, violent one. In 1891, white racists murdered Republicans, prominent blacks and many of the social elite to take over the Democratic Party and the county. Jackson County became a widely recognized stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
“If a townsperson talked about what was going on at the school, they were told ‘your cattle could be poisoned, your crops could be destroyed, or you might catch a hunter’s stray bullet,’” says Robert Straley.
The school was run by the Department of Agriculture during a time period where the vast stretch of the Panhandle was littered with thriving labor camps producing turpentine, slaughterhouses and working crop farms. At Dozier, corn, pork and other staples were regularly taken out for lucrative sale.
At the same time the University of South Florida researchers began looking for graves, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice was also poring through records and interviewing willing survivors, several years after the story broke widely in 2008. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the state police to conduct an investigation at the still-open institution. Most of the alleged abusers, including the warden, have long passed away but one notorious figure cited often in the victim testimony is an octogenarian man named Troy Tidwell, also known as the “one armed man,” by Straley, Kiser and others who describe him as a brutal whipmaster in the “White House.”
The Justice Department did find a disturbing pattern of behavior on the part of Dozier’s administrators and released findings detailing constitutional violations and seemingly deliberate indifference to destructive behaviors by juvenile residents. A lawsuit filed against the state was dismissed due to expiration of the statute of limitations. State police determined there was no substantive evidence to prove the worst allegations of abuse, and murder.
“The black men are older and don’t want to lose their Social Security benefits, while the white men have spouses, children, and families who they don’t want to know about what happened at Dozier,” Kiser said. “People were raped, mutilated. Asking them to come forward, talk about it and testify is like asking someone who was at Auschwitz to return to Germany after the Holocaust.”
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) formally requested the Justice Department to assist the University of South Florida researchers, following the release of the agency’s findings. The USF team is returning to the grounds of Dozier in January to continue digging for more sites and discover the fate of the white boys who died as well. Because students at Dozier were segregated by where they slept, ate and were even beaten, the University of South Florida researchers believe the bodies of white victims remain to be discovered.
Disturbing occurrences did continue at Dozier following the moratorium on flogging in 1968. Not long before its closing in the summer of 2011, a female teacher was arrested for a sexual relationship with a minor living there, and in another case a juvenile resident was charged with making a false allegation of a bomb threat.
“We have to put everything that happened to us at the Dozier School out in the open,” Straley said. “The mainstream civil rights organizations and people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton haven’t responded to our story. We’ve had very little help on the national scene, but it’s important that this never be allowed to happen anywhere again.”