Murder, Forced Labor and the Forgotten Black Boys of Florida’s Dozier School for Boys

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Johnny Lee Gaddy, a “White House Boy” at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Jackson County from 1957-61, at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Phil Sears / AP)

In 1957, 11-year-old Johnny Lee Gaddy started skipping class. Embarrassed by his persistent stutter, Gaddy chose to avoid the relentless teasing from classmates at his Dade City, Fla., elementary school. One evening the police showed up at his house and told his mother they were taking the truant boy to “go see the judge.”

“I told my mother there wasn’t gonna be any judge there at 7:00 in the evening,” recalls the 71-year-old Gaddy, a pastor who still lives in Florida. But they told her the judge was “waiting for me” at the courthouse. “Once I got there,” he says, they “put me in a cell and told me I had to stay there until the judge came.” Tired, the boy eventually went to sleep. “When I woke,” remembers Gaddy, there was no judge and the officer was putting me in a car and saying, “Son, you are on your way to Marianna.”

Five hours later, the dazed 11-year-old arrived at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. He was checked in and given a number of shots before being taken to the Black side of the segregated campus and issued clothing and work boots. A man told me, “Boy, your life is fin’ to change,” says Gaddy, noting “I didn’t understand what he meant by that.”

“But I eventually found out what he meant. And he wasn’t lying.”

Gaddy is currently one of over 500 former students reporting they were severely beaten, sexually abused and used as slave labor at Dozier. Though the school was finally closed in 2011 after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found ongoing excessive force and a lack of safety and services, what is still being unearthed is the extent of its atrocities over its 111-year existence. A January 2016 report by archaeologists and forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida revealed 55 on-site graves and 51 sets of remains of which seven DNA identifications and 14 other matches were made. Of the preliminary identifications, several were from bodies hastily thrown into graves or those reported to their families as having “run away” from the institution. Many suspect more bodies are buried without any form of marking, especially on the Black side of campus, given findings that three times as many Black students died than white students.

Four years ago, Gaddy and a number of the victims formed the Black Boys of Dozier, a support group aimed at seeking justice for the atrocities committed against them and those victims no longer living. They were encouraged by the Florida Legislature’s recent adoption of a resolution formally apologizing for the treatment of those sent to Dozier. In it, the state “regrets that the treatment of boys who were sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Okeechobee School was cruel, unjust and a violation of human decency, and acknowledges this shameful part of the State of Florida’s history.”

Still, the story is far from over. Along with a lack of restitution, the acknowledgement by the state does not significantly address the forced labor and large profits generated by “students” like Gaddy on the Black side of Dozier’s campus who worked the fields, harvested crops, drove tractors and cut down timber in gator- and snake-infested swamps.

“There are many different faces of slavery because it disguises itself,” says Antoinette Harrell, a genealogist and peonage specialist who has combed Florida’s state archives for information on forced labor at the institution. Harrell’s research revealed boys as young as 7 working the fields, tending to crops and raising and slaughtering livestock. The school would take the produce away daily on trucks to sell for sizable profits. Harrell uncovered sales reports from Dozier, including a quarterly sheet from October 1958 showing produce revenues of $10,980.36, and a March 1966 report showing Dozier made $118,160 in swine and $156,108 in beef sales over the previous year. “I wanted to know who was picking up the produce, what companies were involved and how much money was being made off of the produce and the livestock,” explains Harrell, who is still digging for more answers.

Such child labor at Dozier was not only forced and profitable, it was treacherous. Gaddy recalls how his first beating was prompted by sticking up for a 7-year-old they’d partnered with him to cut down a tree with a two-man saw. “He was so weak and little that when I pushed the saw, he couldn’t pull it, so I had to push and pull just to keep him from getting a spanking for not doing his job.”

When Gaddy took the blame for the two of them not working fast enough, he was taken to a small white building on campus known as “The White House.” It smelled of vomit and its walls were stained with dried blood. Gaddy was brought to a back room by a large man, put face down on a blood-stained mattress, told to keep his face buried in a vomit-drenched pillow, and to not let go of the cot’s metal rail. “He told me if I let go, he could kill me,” says Gaddy, noting how the force of the blows from the heavy leather belt could rupture a testicle if it missed the buttocks. The man also “told me if I let go, he’d start all over again. When he hit me the first time, I had never been hit so hard in my whole life. I called for Mama, Jesus and everybody, but they didn’t come.”

Once the dozens of lashes stopped, “There was blood everywhere” as the belt had “sucked the skin from my behind.” When “I got off the bed with blood running down my legs, I asked him if I could go see the doctor,” continues Gaddy. “But the man said he wanted me to go straight to the cafeteria where the students were eating “to set an example for the other boys that we are not playin’ with you guys.”

Things got worse. Not long after, Gaddy was driving the tractor while taking trash from the field to burn it in the fire pit. There, says Gaddy, he looked down and saw the severed hand of a child. “I told one of the boys I’d seen a body part” at the pit and he told me, “Johnny, don’t ever repeat that again because you could end up in that pit. They don’t want anybody to know what’s happening here.” 

What many Americans don’t know is that slavery did not cease with the 13th Amendment. Alongside the postbellum system of sharecropping commonly referred to as “neoslavery,” an actual system of forced labor was perpetuated through local courts, draconian codes and ordinances, and outright kidnapping. By the 1880s, most Southern states had enacted vaguely defined laws to criminalize Negroes regardless of conduct and herd them into prison labor camps, chain gangs and other forms of involuntarily servitude. Georgia and Florida were among the states where Black people could be rounded up at any time for “vagrancy,” not yielding a walkway to a white person, carrying a gun, switching employers without permission from their previous employer or selling farm produce to someone other than the white men they rented land from. Countless thousands of Negroes were virtually re-enslaved through this insidious process from the Reconstruction period right up through World War II.

Similarly, by the turn of the 20th century, reform schools for youth found guilty of crimes as minor as profanity, truancy and “incorrigibility” — or for simply being an orphan or ward of the state — had proliferated. In 1900, Florida opened its first juvenile detention center for boys and girls, the Florida State Reform School, on 1200 acres of land near Marianna in Jackson County. Over the years, the institution, demographics and name would change as additional land was purchased and the school rebranded as the single-sex Florida Industrial School for Boys and, ultimately, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

However, what stayed the same was a disturbing pattern of abuse. Between 1903 and 1913, a series of state investigations uncovered significant abuse and neglect including children as young as 5 being beaten, shackled, denied food and clothing, and hired out as free labor. Yet, upon rebranding and administrative promises to improve, the school remained open and reasserted its brutal methods for decades. And it kept concerned parents at bay by preying on mostly poor children like Gaddy who lived hours from the facility and forcing them to write home weekly about how much they were enjoying their stay.

With its 2011 closure, Dozier will prey upon Florida’s children no more. Still, Harrell insists it’s a history that cannot be forgotten as she has helped the Black Boys at Dozier bring their dark past to light. Along with publicizing their story, she helped organize an on-site press conference in August 2013, the first time the group of men had returned to the campus in over a half-century.

“Because the campus was segregated, the white men cannot say what happened on the Black side, and the Black men cannot say what happened on the white side,” says Harrell, noting they “would be beaten if they talked to each other.”

“So, if we don’t talk to these men and tell them to bring their stories out, as Black people, how will we know what happened?”

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