[EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times]
Robert Straley writes that “if you look too
long at those White House walls, stained
and pitted, you may start to see things I saw,
a hint of a face, an eye, a cadaverous
mouth caught in an unending scream … ”
A Dozier boy’s nightmares
By Robert W. Straley, Special to the Times
In Print: Sunday, June 12, 2011
Editor's note: Last month, the state Department of
Juvenile Justice announced it would be closing Florida's
oldest state-run reform school, commonly known as the
Dozier School for Boys, on June 30. Robert Straley, of
Clearwater, was sent to the school in 1963 for running
away from home. He attributes a lifetime of nightmares
and broken relationships to the brutal beatings and
abuse he received while there, which he wrote about in
The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and
Redemption in the Deep South.
Never in a million years could I have imagined that while standing against the cold cement block of the White
House punishment room hallway at 13 years of age, in a state of shock from hearing the screams and the sound
of the whip on flesh, that I would return 45 years later to stand in the exact same spot.
I was told there were trauma counselors on standby, but there was no terror in my heart. What had taken place
those many years ago had already had its way with me in the form of terrible nightmares, a man's presence sitting
down on the edge of my bed for the next 45 years, to awaken in great fright, the inability to become close with
I was suspicious, paranoid, courting dangerous pursuits to cheat death in many ways to prove to myself I was no
longer afraid and, worst of all, rage that would never die. Not even old age could weaken its grip. It became an old
familiar demon that wrapped me up in dark wings. As the years passed they became oh so familiar that I ceased
to struggle, at home in that burning, resigned embrace. I had no idea that I would later harm others, especially the
ones I loved.
If you look too long at those White House walls, stained and pitted, you may start to see things I saw, a hint of a
face, an eye, a cadaverous mouth caught in an unending scream, the figure of a man with a whip, arm upraised,
shifting ghostly images and screams, locked in those walls and in my 13-year-old mind, now trapped in an old
The institution opened in 1900 and brutality became the norm. Boys were flogged for the next 68 years, even after
Gov. Cary A. Hardee banned it in 1922. That was what was on my mind that day, those 68 years. It brought to
mind a very vivid image that I saw at 10 years old, which shocked me, from a book entitled The Story of Man. It
was huge and ancient then, with exquisite artwork. It spared no horror. On one page was the picture of men,
chained and suffering, in a line that stretched beyond the horizon, all headed into the great mouth of Baal, an
ancient god with a lion's mouth, and inside was fire that burned day and night and the sacrifices never ended. I
thought to myself that day about the thousands of boys who were pushed through the doors to that room of
torture and how many screams and pleas for mercy those walls had heard. It seems that man's story has not
When it became my turn to speak I chose to speak about those 68 years and I saw that on most of the faces that
looked up was surprise and disbelief and I realized, save for the older staff, most of these people never knew what
that building they passed daily stood for.
Now Dozier is closing and 185 jobs are lost. One reporter called me and kept asking what would I say to all of
those people who were losing their jobs? Did I consider them guilty of some crime? Did I think it was fair? Did I
I told him no, that the beatings and abuse were by the hands of the few and many staff quit over them. The truth is
that in those days you did not talk about the beatings or the boys to strangers or your cattle might be poisoned,
your barn burnt or you might catch a careless hunter's bullet. A veil of secrecy surrounded the town for all those
years. When Michael O'McCarthy and I made our last visit to Marianna, we made a plea on camera to the citizens
of Marianna to speak up — they no longer had to be afraid. They still are afraid and not one person in that town
ever gathered up the courage to blow the whistle on the abuse that everyone knew about. If someone had, the
outcome would have been very different.
Sadly, the people who are losing their jobs are, for the most part, innocent victims themselves. Decades before
them men they never knew sowed their seeds and they now are reaping what their forefathers did sow. No one
person save for Roger Kiser's letters to the state, largely ignored, set out to expose what happened. It was by
chance and the hand of fate that four men met and a series of events led to this tragic tale.
Three hundred men still wait for justice, and unnamed boys in unmarked graves under Florida pines whisper,
"Please Remember Me." Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a famous writer, cried over Martin Tabert, whipped to death
in a backwoods labor camp that led to the ban on flogging. As she wrote in her famous ballad:
The other convicts, they stood around him,
When the length of the black strap cracked and found him,
Martin Tabert of North Dakota,
And he's walking Florida now.
I suspect he has a 14-year-old boy named Martin Anderson walking with him, and many others, yet to be named,
and they are all walking Florida now.
Twenty White House Boys have died since 2008, including Michael O'McCarthy, a journalist and activist and
incredibly, a boy at Marianna who had received one of the dreaded 100-lash beatings. He passed the story to
Carol Marbin Miller, a journalist at the Miami Herald. The story broke two months later. In the end, this strange
journey would cost us all more than we could ever have imagined.
[Last modified: Jun 11, 2011 04:30 AM]