The ‘White House Boys’: a Florida horror story
Workers who were preparing for a massive cleanup of a fuel storage site near one of the nation’s most notorious reform schools have discovered something far worse than ground pollution: evidence of 27 possible “clandestine” graves.
A company hired to evaluate underground storage tanks adjacent to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna performed a series of ground-penetrating radar tests on a parcel a little less than 500 feet from what is called the Boot Hill burial grounds at Dozier, an infamous youth prison linked to more than a century of chilling abuse.
A report on the study said there are 27 “anomalies” on the parcel consistent with human burials. If the 27 anomalies are, in fact, human remains, the total number of known burials on the campus would rise to at least 82 — though University of South Florida researchers who have studied the campus extensively believe there may have been 100 or more deaths at Dozier since its opening in 1900.
“Unmarked graves, by conscious design, are made to be hiding places,” said Jack Levine, a Florida children’s advocate who had raised concerns about Dozier when he was a young social worker for the state. “What stays hidden almost forgives the crime.”
Originally called the Florida State Reform School, Dozier was established in 1897 as a progressive alternative to the more brutal methods of confining delinquent, incorrigible and orphaned youths. Children would “receive careful physical, intellectual and moral training” on a bucolic campus ringed with pines and oak. It fell far short of that ideal almost from the beginning, as visitors encountered children clapped in irons.
Dozier cycled through periods of short-lived reform followed by spasms of sometimes hellish abuse. In 2008, a group of mostly 60- and 70-year-old men formed what they called the White House Boys, a group named after a squat, now-decrepit cinder-block building on campus called the White House.
That’s where officers took them, they said, to be beaten — sometimes scores of times — with a leather strap inlaid with metal. The boys would be forced to lie prone on a filthy cot in a cell that became speckled with blood and slivers of human flesh. Some of the men also said they had been taken to a “rape room” where officers sexually assaulted them. Others say they were aware of children who were killed there.
Over time, Dozier became a kind of shorthand for brutal punishment meted out to unruly children. A former superintendent said parents throughout the state would threaten “if you don’t behave, we’ll send you to Dozier.”
The youth camp was shuttered in 2011, around the time the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reported “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.” The practices included excessive force, punishment for “minor infractions,” lack of staff training and little treatment for youths with addictions or mental illness.
In December 2018, Florida deeded the Dozier campus over to Jackson County, a move to which many of the White House Boys strongly objected. Many of the now-elderly former detainees favored turning the site into a memorial or museum.
In a letter to a Jackson County commissioner, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had asked the state Department of Environmental Regulation and other agencies “to develop a path forward” from the discovery. “Representatives of these agencies will be reaching out to meet with county officials as the first step to understanding and addressing these preliminary findings,” he added.
Dozier was segregated prior to 1968, as was much of the South, including rural Jackson County in the Panhandle. The reformatory was really two campuses bisected by Penn Avenue, one for white children to the south, and another — decidedly inferior — campus to the north. The 27 soil disturbances that are believed to be graves were found within the African-American sector of the reform school.
Even at its founding, the black campus was anything but equal. Reports by lawmakers in 1911 and 1913 described the white detainees’ quarters as “neatly kept,” housing “comfortably clad” and “happy” children. The “Negro School,” however, was “more in the nature of a convict camp.”
Fifty-five sets of remains already were found buried in and around the Boot Hill burial grounds, which held 31 white PVC pipe crosses in neat rows that bore no relation to the bodies interred below. Some of the boys perished during a fire in 1914. They had been locked in “dark cells” on the third floor of a dormitory when a fire erupted.
The precise number of youths who died that night is unknown, though a research team from the University of South Florida believes 10 boys were killed in the blaze. The bones of three of the fire victims were commingled in seven graves.
But they are only a part of Dozier’s deadly drama: The USF researchers, given permission by the state to investigate the school’s history, estimate that nearly 100 boys died at the youth prison during more than a century of its operation. Their stories, like their bones, remained buried for decades. Then, in 2008, a handful of the reform school’s alumni found each other on the internet.
The 31 crosses at the site appear to be purely symbolic. “The rest of the graves were outside this area in the woods, including under a roadway, brush and a large mulberry tree,” USF forensic archaeologist Erin Kimmerle wrote in a January 2015 report to then-Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Kimmerle added: “A significant amount” of trash [both historic and modern] was buried in the area, including a cache of syringes and drug bottles” dating back to the 1980s, the remains of a dog stuffed in a recently purchased water cooler, and loads of garbage.
The report on the latest discovery leaves unanswered the most basic questions, Kimmerle said: Are the anomalies, indeed, the remains of children? If the site was a secret burial ground, should a team of medical examiners be dispatched to secure the remains, conduct autopsies and investigate possible misconduct?
“If it is their belief that this was a ‘clandestine’ burial site, that requires the state to do something,” Kimmerle said. “You have to really step back and allow the field work and get to the bottom of what is going on there.”
Several of the original White House Boys died before a true reckoning could occur.
Robert Straley, who began to understand what had been done to him after suffering a breakdown in the aisles of a Super Kmart, was one of the founders of the White House group. He died last July of pancreatic cancer at age 71.
“You can never go back to Marianna as a man in your mind,” Straley told the Miami Herald in an interview the year before he died. “You can only go back as the helpless child you were. You may think you are talking in a man’s voice. But you are really talking in a little boy’s voice.”
And the survivors are aging quickly.
“We are so old. We lost a lot of people over the last decade,” said Jerry Cooper, who represents the largest faction of Dozier survivors, and claims title to the moniker White House Boys. “A lot of us are dying, and a lot of us are very ill. They are not even able to travel. They take what comes.”
“Each time there is a reunion, there are less and less and less of us.”