Those following the current excavation of the Dozier School for Boys, understand researchers with the University of South Florida (USF) believe approximately 100 children are buried in the vicinity of an area referred to as the “Boot Hill Cemetery.” What they may not be aware of, is that the anthropology team conducting scientific and forensic research believe there is a possible second cemetery located on the grounds.
The Dozier School for Boys is one of Florida’s most troubled secrets. The school began on Jan. 1, 1900, as the Florida State Reform School and has been embroiled in controversy and scandal ever since. Early records show that children as young as six-years-old, both boys and girls, were kept in leg irons and forced to perform manual labor that benefited the school and the state of Florida. For the most part, work took priority over education and it didn’t take long for experts to question how much “reform and rehabilitation” actually occurred at the school.
Over the years, the school changed government hands, underwent name changes (Florida Industrial School for Boys; Florida School for Boys and the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys); however one thing remained the same: allegations of abuse, rape and murder.
The White House or Ice Cream Factory
In the late 20s, the school constructed a white, concrete building that would be known by two names: the White House and the Ice Cream Factory. The building earned the nicknames because every Saturday, children who had lost points due to poor grades, walking on the grass, (out of bounds), or engaging in any behavior staff deemed inappropriate, were taken to the White House to receive a repetitive, series of floggings. The children said their buttocks (or legs and back) looked like different flavors of ice cream due to the pits, welts, and bruising with shades of blueberry to raspberry.
The school called it punishment; survivors called it torturous abuse. While school officials over the years described the floggings as a form of legalized, corporal punishment that proved to be the only way to reach juvenile offenders; grown men who endured the beatings continue to break down in tears as they relive them.
Dozier staff claimed that students received approximately 15 whippings with a paddle or belt, only hard enough to leave a purplish mark, but never anything more. Survivors say that children who ran away were automatically beaten 100 times with a leather strap that had been weighted down with metal. They say that even young children, approximately 10-years-old, would be forced to hold the bars on a bed, bite down on a blood-soaked, pillow, and not move an inch as a grown man, maybe weighing more than 200 pounds, and standing over 6’ tall, would use all his strength to deliver blow, after blow, threatening to start the count again should a child move or fight back. They say they could barely walk after a beating, and some had to have pieces of their underwear removed from their bloodied skin. Some survivors attribute nerve damage, chronic back injury and pain to the beatings.
Not only do survivors say the abuse occurred, but they say some children died as a direct result of staff’s actions.
Secrets in the Ground
USF has secured a permit to unearth graves in the “Boot Hill Cemetery,” and work began at the end of August 2013. By September 2013, USF retrieved two bodies that will undergo forensic autopsies to determine if the children were murdered or died of natural causes.
As the school was segregated, presumably until the late 60s or early 70s, it stands to reason that there were two separate cemeteries. The anthropological team working the site has stated they have spoken with eyewitnesses who saw a “white” cemetery on the South Side section of the school (whites lived on the South Side, while “coloreds” live on the North Side). The Boot Hill Cemetery, that is currently undergoing excavation was the “colored” cemetery.
Not only have witnesses stated there was a separate, white cemetery; but survivors have recounted chilling tales of digging graves at odd hours on staff members' direct orders. Numerous allegations by “White House Boys” (those who underwent abuse in the White House) state that children were murdered, buried in graves on the property, or thrown in swamps.
While USF currently estimates approximately 100 bodies in the “Boot Hill” region, one can only imagine what the total body count is.
No Way to Know for Sure how many Passed through Dozier
One of the most troubling aspects of the Dozier School for Boys’ past, is that records for this state-run, school were poorly kept over the years. In the school’s 111 year history, it is accurate to say that no one will ever know exactly how many children were the school’s wards. That also means that unless their bodies are unearthed; no one will ever have an accurate picture regarding how many children were discarded in the ground and forgotten.
Should USF provide concrete, forensic evidence that shows children were murdered under state care, while living at the school, we can expect they would be given full access to the entire acreage to continue their work, far beyond the current one-year time frame.
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