A few weeks ago, we covered a story about the Dozier Reform School for boys, a long established Florida institution. Open over a century, the school was constantly plagued with rumours of abuse ranging from beatings to rape to possibly murder. When forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle started an excavation on the grounds of the now-closed school in the fall of 2013, she found 55 bodies instead of the 31 presumed buried on the grounds. Recently returned to the school, Dr. Kimmerle hopes to find additional remains.
Shortly after we ran the Dozier post, a former student, Bill Price, contacted me and offered to share some of his experiences at the school with us. We’re very grateful to Bill for being willing to share some very difficult memories with us.
White House Boys is a term used to indicate boys that attended the Dozier Reform School in Marianna, Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. Were you one of those boys?
I was sent to the school which was known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys at the time and was designed to house wayward and unmanageable children and at the same time teach them a trade. I was there in 1961–62.
Why were you sent to Dozier? How old were you?
I was sent to Marianna for running away from home to escape abusive stepfathers, which totaled 5 before I was 14. This also meant that I was among 4 half brothers and sisters which made my sister and I the outcasts. I want to make you aware of something that might make more sense of my running away from home. My earliest memory was when I was seven in 1954. My brother and I were home alone and watching our green screen TV and Superman came on. I guess my brother wanted to see if it was possible for the bullet to bounce off and took a rifle, straightened a clothes hanger and shot himself in the heart. He ran in the room where I was and fell. I didn't know what to do or where anyone was and had to watch my brother die in front of me. My sister and I were put in an orphanage for 2 years in Salem, Va. because my mother couldn't take care of us in her condition. After 2 years she picked us up and we had a new father and now lived in Florida. I was born in Virginia. So at the age of 13 I ran away from home and no one cared or came looking for me. I had a friend and his mother helped me and fed me. I had never known anyone so kind in my life and she was involved in a car crash and once again I was fending for myself. One night I was with some friends and one of them did something stupid and took some money. We were all caught and given a slap on the wrist and released to our parents except me and my stepfather told them I ran away a long time ago and that they couldn't control me so I was sent to Marianna.
Was there a difference in treatment between the black and white students? What was the population difference between those two groups? How many boys were at Dozier during your years there?
At the time I was in Marianna the population reached about 600 or better and from what I had heard it was designed for 350 max. During my time there in 61–62 the blacks and whites were segregated and it was strictly forbidden to talk to the blacks when we crossed paths so we didn't discuss what was happening on either side with the other. That infraction was an automatic trip to the white house. I couldn't tell you the population difference at the time because we were not privy to any information about the black side.
What was the staff hierarchy at Dozier?
The school was run by the State of Florida and some of the people hired there by their own admission were uneducated and knew nothing of the psychology of discipline. These same people were promoted from cottage father which was nothing more than a glorified sitter, to disciplinarian and supervisor.
Did you receive any education during your time at the school?
As far as school, we did received schooling and I was fortunate enough to busy myself with the auto shop which came very handy to me later in life. I have read many say they were beaten for bad grades but I never experienced that so I guess the grades were good.
What types of manual labour did you do at the school?
My job during my stay there was lawn care and mowing. I mowed the entire property and when I finished I did it again for 2 years. I helped decorate the place for Christmas and all other maintenance.
How were rules at the school defined? What were the most frequently broken rules and what was the punishment for rule breaking? Was the punishment for breaking rules the same for all students?
When you arrived there you were taken through an orientation program to let you know the rules and they were pretty basic, no swearing, no disrespect, cleanliness. Word of mouth and trial and error were the way you tested the boundaries and learned the penalties for not conforming. The worst for me was right after I arrived I was told that I was disrespectful and was taken to the white house and given 25 licks for that. This was administered with a leather strap 3.5 to 4 inches wide with a formed handle and swung with all the force they could use and it was not confined to the buttocks, it was extended up the back and down the legs to prevent you from becoming numb and not feeling the lashes. Meaning it was a brutal whipping. After I received that whipping I ran away and stayed away for 3 days and when they caught me I was taken back and given 100 lashes which was the standard for running. This time I bled from my back to my knees and the cloth from my boxer shorts was imbedded in my skin. I was pretty docile for nearly a year after that and only got beaten one time for smoking and got 10 lashes for that. I was told that when I was sent there it was for 11 months and when I was scheduled to go home I couldn't because no one could be found for me to be released to. I was pretty upset over that and once again ran away. I tried to make it to Georgia to get out of this state and once again caught. I was taken back and given 100 lashes again and this time I was beaten worse. Two days after the beating I still couldn't sit down and had to go to the infirmary and found out that I had a broken coccyx bone and had to even stand and eat for 2 months. This time I was put in Pierce hall and fed Souza soup for 2 months which was a soup laced with Thorazine to make me more manageable and calm me down because I couldn't get out and was a danger to run again. After release from there I was still required to work but couldn't sit on tractor so I used a shovel. The punishment was not the same for all. If a child never had any visitors they were treated a lot worse because they couldn't report what was happening to them.
How did you finally get released? Did you return to your family?
Previously I mentioned my sister who was 4 years older and recently married a tomato grower’s son in Ruskin Fla and she contacted me when she found out where I was. No one ever told her where I was. She agreed to take me in since my Mother had moved to California. I was released to her and I graduated high school while living with her and working the tomato fields to pay for my way.
Have there been lasting scars for you as a result of your treatment at the school?
I can’t begin to tell you the lasting scars both mental and psychological. I do wake up in the middle of the night and the anxiety won’t allow me to return to sleep but it covers many years of my life not just the school, but it didn't help.
There are several I believe exaggerate their experience there but it is not for me to say, I know that it was a big deal when you were sent back to your cottage that you show everyone what you got and how bad the bruises and cuts were. Many lived vicariously through the ones that were beaten. You know the ones that were and the ones that exaggerate by the way they describe it. I was beaten by stepfathers with belts and one even beat me with his fists and none matched the pain of that strap.
Did you personally know any students who disappeared during their stay, or who were seriously or fatally injured at the hands of school disciplinarians?
I do remember the one time that I went to get the beating for smoking, I was waiting for my turn to go in and there was another kid in front of me that was screaming while being beaten and suddenly he stopped. Me and another kid were taken out of the white house and back to our cottage before we got our beating. We were taken back the next day to receive our licks. This was a very strange turn of events. It never happens except for that time. I believe they hurt that boy bad and rushed us out to cover it up.
I also played football for the school and at practice one day I heard and saw a big commotion going on inside the gym. We tried to go in but not allowed. After about 45 minutes we saw a couple boys carrying a stretcher with one of the boys on it and later told he died of a heart attack. I was later informed by the other players that he was made to run in the gym and not allowed to stop even though he complained about not being able to breathe. He did not receive medical help because they thought he was faking.
These are the only times I have firsthand knowledge of but was told of other things that had happened, including one kid getting shot and killed when he ran away. I was told that a deputy fired three warning shots and one hit him in the head. It turns out that it is not an urban legend, it did happen. I have often thought about the two times I ran away and that it could have been me. I survived it all.
Many thanks to Bill for sharing his experiences at Dozier with us and with our readers. Bill has kindly offered to drop by, so if you have any questions for him, please feel free to ask in the comments section. Please note that this is an emotional topic, and while we very much encourage comments, those comments will be moderated in the case of any personal attacks.