Friday, May 27, 2011

Closure of Dozier School marks end of historic facility

Dozier School from the Air (Bing Map)
The announcement this week that Dozier School in Marianna - now officially titled another name, but still called Dozier School by local residents - will mark the end of a facility that has served the State of Florida for more than 100 years.

Originally known as the Florida Reform School, Dozier came into existence in the 1890s when state leaders realized Florida needed a better facility for housing juvenile offenders. At the time it opened, it was a state of the art facility.

The boys housed there were both black and white. Living quarters were segregated in those days, but the boys of both races worked on a farm and in a number of other industries to learn skills and help support the expense of operating the school.

There was a terrible fire in the early 1900s, followed by the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Those two events alone claimed two dozen lives at the facilities, taking both boys held at the reform school and employees who watched over them.

The media - particularly the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times - has delighted in telling stories of alleged horrors at the facility during its early days.  In their search for sensational angles, however, they often do not provide the perspective needed to judge events such as the fire and flu outbreak.

In the fire, for example, a boy died after going back into the burning dormitory to save the life of an employee he thought was trapped inside. It was a sign of the concern that most employees and youths at the school had for each other and was a remarkably heroic act that seems to always be overlooked in accounts of events at the school.

The same is true of the horrible conditions that developed at the school during the 1918 flu outbreak. A federal health official visited the school and found boys writhing in misery in abominable conditions, virtually uncared for and dying rapidly from the ravages of the flu. This report is often quoted in news stories about the school as a way of offering "perspective" on how horrible things have been there over the years.

In fact, what the accounts often do not mention, is that employees of the school were writhing in misery along with the students and that the flu had so ravaged the facility that everyone was sick, not just the boys. In fact, the 1918 flu outbreak killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions worldwide. Entire cities collapsed during the outbreak and in parts of Georgia towns went so far as to ban church services and all public assemblies as a way of halting the spread of the deadly outbreak. Walk through any cemetery that has been around for 100 years or more and you will see a startling number of headstones with the death date listed as 1918.

In short, history is more than a collection of sensational events. History is a mixture of things, some good, some bad. History proves that most people are good hearted and that those who usually reap what they sow.

Dozier School, not so long ago, didn't even have fences. It looked more like a college campus than a juvenile detention facility. People from all over the region went there every Christmas to ride the train or to see the wonderful animated Christmas displays the students used to assemble each year.

Dozier School, in the early 1980s, had the best success rate of turning juvenile offenders from criminals into responsible citizens of any school in the state. It offered a success story that was studied by other such facilities across the nation.

Over the last couple of years, there has been much negative publicity about both the school and Jackson County. People, many of them long dead, have been accused of attrocities. Many of those allegations were patently false.  Did bad things happen at Dozier?  I'm sure they did occasionally, just as they do in prisons, veterans hospitals, public schools, private schools, college campuses and in our own homes.

Were the so-called "White House Boys" abused at Dozier School four decades ago?  I don't know. They say they were, others say they were not. I do know, however, that many of the allegations made by them turned out to be false.  There are no mystery graves at Dozier School. The little cemetery shown so often on the news and in newspaper photographs actually contained the graves of boys, employees and even animals that died at the school over the years. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated and found that the large majority of the graves date from more than 90 years ago. FDLE also found that there are no "missing boys." Every offender sent there is accounted for in the records.  Claims of murder and of boys disappearing are simply untrue. The only juvenile murdered at the school was killed by other juveniles.

It is a shame that so much negative publicity was heaped on the facility and our community. It is a shame that so many reporters did not bother to look for the truth behind allegations before airing or printing their stories. It is a shame that reporters from Miami and St. Pete didn't take time to look at the histories of incarceration facilities in their own communities, where I suspect they would find horrors that make anything that happened at Dozier look pale by comparison.

Goodbye Dozier and the jobs you provided. It is a shame that it came to this and that state officials did not have more courage in the face of unwarranted negative publicity.


Terry Sirmans said...

When I was young, we went to the "Reform School" every Christmas Eve to ride the train and ride around campus to see all the decorations. I guess it was our parents way of wearing us out so we would go to sleep early.
We also played their B team football team and they always beat us .

Terry Sirmans said...

When I was young our parents took us there every Christmas Eve to ride the train and view all the wonderful decorations. Guess it was their way of wearing us out so we would go to bed early.

Dale said...

Terry, I remember going out there at Christmas as well. It was one of the highlights of my childhood. I went to Malone and we never played them, but I've heard many stories about Marianna vs. Dozier football games. One favorite is of how in one year Dozier had a great defense but no offense and, at a critical point in a game, punted on first down.


Leslie said...

My grandfather worked at the school teaching Carpentry -- I don't think I ever was told exactly when -- in the 40s or 50s I think. Do you know if there are records where I might be able to find out. His name was Walter Felix Davis.

Leslie Davis Cox