The school currently undergoing excavation to determine how boys died and were buried there was established on child slave labor. The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys closed in June 2011, but was founded as the Florida State Reform School on Jan. 1, 1900. Though the Florida State Reform School was designed to help juvenile offenders rehabilitate in a safe and healthy manner; that often wasn’t the case. In many situations, Florida’s children offenders were treated in a same manner or even worse than adults. Adult convicts could not be beaten by law; however, child offenders could be spanked or paddled. This has resulted in numerous allegations that children who attended the school in its 111 year history were not only beaten, but also beaten to death.
As adult-prison labor could be rented out during the early part of the 20th century, child labor would also prove profitable for the state of Florida. As the property that housed the Florida State Reform School expanded, it was children that worked the fields, tended the cows, built buildings and other structures on the property. In a July 20, 1906 newspaper article by the Miami Times, titled “Reform School is Good” Superintendent Rawl and his assistants were praised for the work they did with child offenders living in the school. The article stated, “The boys spend half their days in school, and the other half at work.” The article continues, “In addition to farming, and other industries, a brick yard has been established at the institution, and the first kiln of brick was burned Friday. This is an institution that has long been needed and should be given every consideration by the State authorities.”
While some praised the apparent successes of the Florida State Reform School, calls for ends to abusive practices were seemingly falling on deaf ears.
The same year as the newspaper article wrote that state authorities should heed requests from the school, Superintendent Rawls was asking for children’s sentences to be extended in order to get more work accomplished.
According to the USF document Interim Report on Boot Hill Cemetery, we read, “Superintendent Rawls wrote to the Board of Managers again in 1906, about low enrollment stating that the school only had 20 inmates and that ‘having so few inmates makes the crop come in slow. I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.’”
It became clear within the school’s first 10 years of operation that strong, healthy boys with long sentences would mean profit for the school. Not only did the children and teens at the Florida Reform School for Boys literally build many of the property’s structures, but they also worked in various industries.
A 1907 letter sent to then Governor Broward from the school’s board president Hon. W. H. Milton addressed issues of a child’s sentence and the school’s profitability.
The Interim report reads as follows, “Letters from Board President Milton continued with requests for longer sentences and increasing the number of boys committed to the school along with suggestions on how the school could increase revenue.”
The following is a quote from Milton's 1907 letter to Broward. “If the school were to purchase a sufficient number of cattle, it could run a dairy farm to advantage, as there would be a good local demand...”
The Board of Managers decide to remove the county and court fees paid to the school for each child. Without the fees, more children were sentenced to the school and over time, the school stopped accepting girls, housed boys and their sentences were extended until the school or court determined they were fit to leave, or the child was 21-years-old. Between 1907 and 1908, the number of school inmates more than doubled. As more children attended the reform school, the more profits were earned for the school and the state of Florida.
In 1905, Hon. Milton wrote an editorial reply to the Pensacola Journal in which he addressed issues such as the students not having a teacher and being chained/shackled to prevent them from running away while working.You may read that article here: Some Inside History of State Reform School (March 17, 1905)
It is clear to see that “reform” for many years at the state run school focused more on “work” than it did on education.
You may view photos of children working at the Florida State Reform School in the slideshow above.
Over the school’s 111 years of operation, allegations of rape, abuse, torture and murder have been stated against the school and its staff. A current anthropological and forensic excavation is underway in a cemetery located on the school property, conducted by USF. The Boot Hill Cemetery, was the area where black students were buried. It is identified by 31 crosses set over unmarked graves. Teams with USF discovered additional bodies buried in the cemetery’s vicinity.
While USF concentrates on this area and hopefully exhumations of the bodies will bring answers to how these children perished, as well as give closure to their families, we cannot overlook or ignore the fact that the school does not have accurate records of every student it housed.
If there are approximately 100 bodies buried at Boot Hill, where is the cemetery located for the white students that attended during the school’s strict years of segregation? As the Florida State Reform School functioned under Jim Crow laws and everything was segregated, it is without question that white students were buried separately from black students. It is also impossible to think that there were no white students buried in a separate cemetery or area on the grounds.
Survivors of the Dozier School for Boys have recounted horrific tales of students who were murdered, buried in shallow graves on the property and even thrown in swamps.
For true justice to be served, a thorough excavation of Dozier’s grounds should be executed; not just Boot Hill Cemetery. But after 113 years, this is a start.
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