Working in the solitude of archival rooms and libraries, USF anthropology professor Antoinette Jackson and her team of graduate students hope to piece together the puzzle of what it was like to live at Florida’s most infamous reform school.
The team has been interviewing survivors from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys since early 2012.
“I was interested in the community as opposed to just the school and the abuse aspect of the story,” Jackson said. “I wanted to know the things that were surrounding the abuses and how they occurred.”
Originally named the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the school began operation in the 1900s. The school housed juvenile offenders sent to the school for delinquency. The youngest child on record was six years old, and some of the inmates were required by courts to live on the 14,000 square-foot campus until the age of 21.
The school was closed by the state in June of 2011 after more than a century-long record of abuse allegations.
Shortly after its closing, a group of researchers from USF’s anthropology department, led by professor Erin Kimmerle, began working on the site, using ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves.
Kimmerle initially approached Jackson in December 2011 with questions about the issues of race at the school and its effects on her research.
Before the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed, black students were housed on the north campus and white students on the south. Both sides of campus were near mirror images of one another, each with their own church and cafeteria.
By Spring 2012, Jackson, along with a group of graduate students, began heading to Mariana to start piecing together the story behind the school.
“She asked me if I would consider a cemetery to possibly fall under a space that would be segregated,” Jackson said. “I told her that based on my work in the South, every aspect of communities, spaces, places were segregated, even cemeteries. That’s how I kind of entered the conversation.”
While many researchers at the site tested soil samples and examined the areas surrounding the grave sites, Jackson and her students attempted to schedule interviews with men who had attended the school and document all the information they could find about daily life at Dozier.
Most of the initial interviews Jackson conducted were with a group of men who were incarcerated at the school during the ’50s and ’60s and call themselves the White House Boys.
Even after 40 years, Jackson said the men could still recall the abuses they suffered vividly.
“To see a grown man who is now in his 60s or 70s break down was something I didn’t really expect going in,” Jackson said. “To see someone so affected by something that happened that long ago was a lot for me.”
Many of the men shared a common fear of a building they commonly referred to as the White House. In this house, the men say they suffered abuses by officials employed by the school.
Jackson said some of the men she interviewed had rarely spoken about what happened to them during their time at the school.
“I feel that in the end it was good because they go to say something they haven’t gotten the chance to say in a long, long time, but just the rawness of the conversations was a lot,” Jackson said.
When the school for boys was shut down in 2011, all records were sent to the state archives of Florida in Tallahassee.
At the same time Jackson was conducting interviews, graduate students Bradley Lanning, Liotta Noche-Dowdy and John Powell were rummaging through boxes of records and photos the state archives had recently received.
“A lot of the stuff was given to us right out of the back of a truck,” Powell said. “As they were logging things into their systems, they were bringing the boxes back to us.”
The group spent hours sifting through boxes of blueprints, photographs, payroll ledgers and correspondence letters dating as far back as 1918.
“When we first got up there we didn’t really know what to expect, so we just kind of grabbed everything, looked through every box,” Lanning said.
Initially, the group was tasked with looking through prisoner records and comparing them against death certificates given to them by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They only found death certificates for 47 of the 98 deaths that occurred at the school.12