Serving up this steaming pile of
Celebrity Gossip
Gay Politics
Gay News
and Pointless Bitchery
Since 1995

Florida Graves Reveal Reform School Horrors, Recall Witnesses and Families

Robert Straley was 13 when he entered the Florida School for Boys in the early 1960s for running away from home. The 1,400-acre grounds in the city of Marianna looked like heaven compared to his troubled home, he said, but on his first day, he was beaten bloody 35 times with a three-foot leather whip with a sheet metal insert.

"These were not spankings -- they were floggings," said Straley, 66 and now living in Clearwater, Fla.

"It looked like a college campus, not a reform school," he said. "There were no fences, the cottages were surrounded by trimmed hedges and tall pines and oaks. There was a swimming pool and a chapel. It looked nice, but it was a beautiful hell."

Straley was one of about 300 "white house boys," so named because they survived routine beatings in a white concrete block building that he called a "torture chamber."

"You went to the left for the white boys' waiting room and right for the black boys' room," he recalled. "They turned on the big industrial fan, which made a large racket and muted the sounds of the screams and whips somewhat.

"The first boy came out with his eyes red from crying and his hands were buried in his crotch. He was pale and shaking with blood on his pants."

The school, later named the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, closed in 2011, but it left a legacy of segregation, forced labor and brutality that is only today being fully uncovered.

Earlier this month, the Florida legislature approved the exhumation of 34 bodies known to be buried at the Dozier's Boot Hill Cemetery.

Digging began Labor Day weekend and excavators unearthed the remains of two boys -- ages 10 and 13 -- and hope to find the remains of as many as 98 children who were reported missing in reform school records over its 111-year history.

Many families who lost children or others who witnessed beatings still have questions about who is buried at Dozier and how they died.

"We knew there were kids missing," said Straley. "I don't think every boy who came to the white house came out alive."

Now researchers at the University of South Florida hope to match DNA in the remains with families who want answers about their missing relatives.

The year-long project is headed up by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who has previously worked on genocide cases, identifying remains in mass graves in the Balkans, Nigeria and Peru.

"It's really about providing access to justice for families," said Kimmerle, 40, who applies science to civil rights.

"This isn't a war. It's different," she said. "But there are brothers and sisters who for their whole lives have been asking questions."

The USF investigation is funded by a $190,000 grant from the State of Florida and $423,000 from the U.S. Justice Department.

The school was established in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country and was renamed several times.

At the start, children as young as 5 were sent there, at first for crimes of "theft and murder," but soon for lesser offenses, such as "incorrigibility, truancy or dependency," according to the 2012 interim report by the USF team. For some, the only crime was being an orphan.

Children were segregated by gender and race -- "white and colored," according to the report. At one time, the facility housed as many as 800 children.

But as early as 1901, reports circulated of children "being chained to walls in irons, brutal whippings and peonage [forced labor]" and the state was called in at least six times to investigate.

In 2008, an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed 34 had been buried at Boot Hill Cemetery on school grounds in unmarked graves and 22 were unaccounted for. But they couldn't find enough evidence to support the allegations.

But USF did its own research of historical documents and found double the number of deaths, including boys aged 6 to 18 and two staff members. They worked for months to secure a permit to dig.

"The records were very incomplete, full of errors and stopped in 1960," said Kimmerle.

by Anonymousreply 3109/09/2013


Much of the property is now grown over with woods and the land is used by different government agencies, but until now, it has been under tight security.

"The big question is whether the burial area is segregated or not, as the campus certainly was," said Kimmerle.

Most of the unmarked graves found so far are near where black children were housed, so many of the former residents say that white children were likely buried elsewhere.

Straley describes a school that was deeply segregated and tied to a labor and criminal justice system in Florida that could force children to work. The school's presses did all the printing for the state in the 1930s and 40s.

"The black boys did all the agriculture, the beef and chicken and cattle and grunt work," he said. "We had it better on our side -- radio, laundry and the printing job."

Straley worked as a "hospital boy," mopping floors, collecting urine samples and even helping the "almost blind" doctor set broken bones and stitch wounds.

Kimmerle used ground-penetrating radar to detect disturbances in the soil that revealed at least 50 burial shafts. She said her team can, depending how much of the skeletal remains are recovered, do a biological profile and learn more about a child's diet, disease and health indicators like illness or stress.

"It's a pretty comprehensive method that tells you a lot about a person and their life and death," she said. "If there was a lot of labor or repetitive activity there are signs of wear on the bones and if there was trauma, whether a person in life healed, we see evidence of that."

The coffins of the two boys found, one with decorative handles of the Art Deco period and the other closed shut with nails, provide clues to when they died.

The remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for DNA testing to see if they match DNA donated by 10 families who have come forward in search of missing relatives.

One woman, Ovell Krell of Lakeland, Fla., said her brother was buried somewhere on the school grounds. George Owen Smith was only 14.

Krell, who is white, said that Owen was sent to the school when he ran away from home in 1940 to pursue musical talent in Nashville. Along the way, he met up with a 19-year-old and got into some trouble.

"My parents weren't notified of any kind of a hearing, just a letter saying he was there," said Krell, now 84 and a retired police officer. "The next thing you know, we got a letter saying he'd escaped, but somehow he got returned to the school. [His mother] kept writing, but never heard anything."

A letter from Owen eventually did arrive in October of that year. "The part that jumped off the page for me was, 'I got what was coming to me,'" said Krell. "After that, we never heard a single word."

In December, the school wrote that Owen could not be located, so Krell's mother informed them she would be arriving in person to find her son.

"The morning before she got there, they said his body had been located under a house in Marianna and he had died of pneumonia," she said. "His body was so badly decomposed they could only identify him by the numbers on his shirt collar."

The family instructed the school to deliver the body to the nearest funeral home, but by the time they arrived on campus, Owen had been buried in an unmarked grave, roped off from access, said Krell, who was only 12 at the time. And because the terrain has changed, she cannot remember where.

"They knew Mom was coming and cooked this story up," Krell said. "By the smell of him ... he had been dead a long time."

Krell said that if her brother's remains are found, "I will be forever grateful and could with a peaceful mind. My mother never got over it."

Straley and the other white house boys pushed for a state probe of the missing children, but it didn't happen until 2008, when the press launched their own investigations and families began to take notice.

Krell said when she finally met the white house boys, her brother's death made some sense.

by Anonymousreply 109/06/2013


Krell said when she finally met the white house boys, her brother's death made some sense.

"When they told their stories, I almost lost it," she said. "I could see someone doing that to my brother and it would have been enough to kill him."

Straley said he had witnessed a 15-year-old after a 100-lash beating: "They whipped most of the skin off of him. The flesh on his back and upper legs were red, black and bloody like hamburger meat."

After three days, Straley said he never saw the boy again. Children were too afraid to tell.

"If anyone talked and it got out, they were down for a beating of their life, or they ended up dead," he said.

Straley said the experience left him with a sense of helplessness and a "rage problem," and he turned to risk-taking activities "to prove I wasn't afraid."

After many more brushes with the law, he ran a successful business manufacturing glow sticks for rock concerts. He married, had a daughter who died, and eventually wrote a book, "The Boys of the Dark," with journalist Michael McCarthy, who was also a resident at Dozier, and author Robin Gaby Fisher.

Straley and others went back to the Dozier grounds last year to plant a tree in front of the notorious white house.

"A Vietnam vet told me he would rather do another tour than go back to the white house," said Straley. "There wasn't one of them -- homeless people, drunks, rich people and business people -- who didn't break down and cry. I realized six months ago that you can never go back to Marianna as a man, you only go back as that little boy you were."

by Anonymousreply 209/06/2013

I feel like this school was featured on an episode of Ghost Adventures or some other ghost hunting show.

by Anonymousreply 609/07/2013

People should be executed for this.

by Anonymousreply 809/08/2013

I think the exhumation of these boys is humane. Their spirits are long gone and their bones are the only thing left to bear witness to their murder. Let them be dug up and let their bones speak of the atrocity dealt them. They may have some trivial reasons to dig but, if those digging are human, during the course of the dig, the causes of death will reach them. Perhaps it will reach those learning from this. These horrible events will be documented and these boys will be remembered.

by Anonymousreply 909/08/2013

Finding out who they were and how they died isn't experimentation, it's getting at truth and giving each victim their day.

I'd want to know for certain how my family member died.

by Anonymousreply 1209/08/2013

Thanks R3 there's always going to be one asshole that brings politics into everything.

by Anonymousreply 1309/08/2013

Are there any employees still alive who did the beatings who could be punished?

by Anonymousreply 1409/08/2013

Why isn't the 85-year-old administrator being extradited and prosecuted? This guy is a lot worse than Edward Snowden.

by Anonymousreply 1609/08/2013

I took Kimmerle's statement to mean that the importance of whether the remains were segregated or not lies in the fact that they suspect there may be another entire grave site that no one knows about--that is to say, the scale of deaths in this place may be far greater than anyone has suspected.

by Anonymousreply 1709/08/2013

[R14] brings up a very good point. The article is kind of unfocused in the areas it touches upon, though.

1. The child labor issue -- unless this persisted past the point where laws has been put into place regarding child labor, nothing illegal ever transpired on this point. Even if it had, it still may not have been illegal. We're looking at this from modern eyes. This was the equivalent of prison for minors, for better or for worse. Prisoners at this time were sentenced to time AND hard labor. Such sentencing may have also existed for minors at this time.

2. The segregation issue -- again, modern eyes. At least at the time the gentleman in the article was there, segregation was the norm. The mention of this having been a KKK stronghold has zero to do with this story. If the segregation contained AFTER federal law required integration, then there may be a civil case, most likely against the state.

3. The beatings (those that did not result in death) -- it may be difficult setting the boundaries between what was disciine and abuse in the time and context of each claim. Not only was quite a bit more tolerated as discipline for ALL children in decades past, but prisoners were beaten as well. These were juvineilles, but were also considered prisoners. I think civil charges against the state would be more likely in this case, but not all cases would be considered abuse viewed in their time and context.

4. The beatings that resulted in deaths -- absolutely criminal charges as well as civil could be brought once causation is established. However, just how long this went on will determine if anyone is still alive to stand trial. In the case of the gentleman in the story, the youngest a person responsible may have been at that time would likely be about 75 or older now, if even still alive. The civil cases should be fairly open and shut, though.

by Anonymousreply 1809/08/2013

[quote]and again, I highly doubt this is the first time any of it has come out.

It isn't. I grew up in Florida (1970's - 1990's) and these disappearances were brought up in the press every few years. The violent beatings were pretty much a fact in the press

And R13, let's bring politics into this. For decades Republican governors in Florida have covered this up and delayed these investigations

by Anonymousreply 1909/08/2013

Oh shit. My uncle worked there in the 60's and 70's.

by Anonymousreply 2009/08/2013

Is your uncle still alive?

by Anonymousreply 2109/08/2013

No he died in the mid 80's. he wasn't the most pleasant person in the world but I can't imagine him being involved in any of this.

by Anonymousreply 2209/08/2013

To misappropriate Sartre, [italic]l'enfer, c'est les autres.[/italic]

by Anonymousreply 2309/08/2013

The veneer of civilization is very thin. In any age, even our own.

by Anonymousreply 2409/08/2013

Obviously, any punishment that results in permanent injury or death is grotesquely excessive.

But these sort of sensationalist stories are also intended to undermine the legitimate use of corporal punishment.

The link below is a perfect example. I big 15-year old--and his father--are whining that the kid got 3 licks (a very minor paddling for a boy that age) and it reddened his ass.

When the dad approved the use of corporal punishment, what did he think it was? A gentle smack on the back of the hand? A single seat on the jeans with an open palm?

by Anonymousreply 2809/09/2013

I big = A big

A single seat = A single swat

It's late...

by Anonymousreply 2909/09/2013

This is SO not unique to Florida. I don't get the huge outrage over suddenly realizing this kind of shit went on back then.

Not just in FL....I live in New England and there is a story like this in every state, particularly Mass. For a good read Google the Elan School in Maine - they recently closed after decades of torture and some even say murder. No heads have rolled either.

by Anonymousreply 3009/09/2013

[quote]I think the exhumation of these boys is humane. Their spirits are long gone


by Anonymousreply 3109/09/2013
Need more help? Click Here.

Follow theDL catch up on what you missed

recent threads by topic delivered to your email

follow popular threads on twitter

follow us on facebook

Become a contributor - post when you want with no ads!