Robert Straley was 13 when he entered the Florida School for Boys in the early 1960s for running away from home. The 1,400-acre grounds in the city of Marianna looked like heaven compared to his troubled home, he said, but on his first day, he was beaten bloody 35 times with a three-foot leather whip with a sheet metal insert.
"These were not spankings -- they were floggings," said Straley, 66 and now living in Clearwater, Fla.
"It looked like a college campus, not a reform school," he said. "There were no fences, the cottages were surrounded by trimmed hedges and tall pines and oaks. There was a swimming pool and a chapel. It looked nice, but it was a beautiful hell."
Straley was one of about 300 "white house boys," so named because they survived routine beatings in a white concrete block building that he called a "torture chamber."
"You went to the left for the white boys' waiting room and right for the black boys' room," he recalled. "They turned on the big industrial fan, which made a large racket and muted the sounds of the screams and whips somewhat.
"The first boy came out with his eyes red from crying and his hands were buried in his crotch. He was pale and shaking with blood on his pants."
The school, later named the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, closed in 2011, but it left a legacy of segregation, forced labor and brutality that is only today being fully uncovered.
Earlier this month, the Florida legislature approved the exhumation of 34 bodies known to be buried at the Dozier's Boot Hill Cemetery.
Digging began Labor Day weekend and excavators unearthed the remains of two boys -- ages 10 and 13 -- and hope to find the remains of as many as 98 children who were reported missing in reform school records over its 111-year history.
Many families who lost children or others who witnessed beatings still have questions about who is buried at Dozier and how they died.
"We knew there were kids missing," said Straley. "I don't think every boy who came to the white house came out alive."
Now researchers at the University of South Florida hope to match DNA in the remains with families who want answers about their missing relatives.
The year-long project is headed up by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who has previously worked on genocide cases, identifying remains in mass graves in the Balkans, Nigeria and Peru.
"It's really about providing access to justice for families," said Kimmerle, 40, who applies science to civil rights.
"This isn't a war. It's different," she said. "But there are brothers and sisters who for their whole lives have been asking questions."
The USF investigation is funded by a $190,000 grant from the State of Florida and $423,000 from the U.S. Justice Department.
|"They said he died of pneumonia. His body was so badly decomposed they could only identify him by the numbers on his shirt collar." - Ovell Krell, whose brother died.|
The school was established in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country and was renamed several times.
At the start, children as young as 5 were sent there, at first for crimes of "theft and murder," but soon for lesser offenses, such as "incorrigibility, truancy or dependency," according to the 2012 interim report by the USF team. For some, the only crime was being an orphan.
Children were segregated by gender and race -- "white and colored," according to the report. At one time, the facility housed as many as 800 children.
But as early as 1901, reports circulated of children "being chained to walls in irons, brutal whippings and peonage [forced labor]" and the state was called in at least six times to investigate.
In 2008, an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed 34 had been buried at Boot Hill Cemetery on school grounds in unmarked graves and 22 were unaccounted for. But they couldn't find enough evidence to support the allegations.
But USF did its own research of historical documents and found double the number of deaths, including boys aged 6 to 18 and two staff members. They worked for months to secure a permit to dig.
"The records were very incomplete, full of errors and stopped in 1960," said Kimmerle.
Much of the property is now grown over with woods and the land is used by different government agencies, but until now, it has been under tight security.
"The big question is whether the burial area is segregated or not, as the campus certainly was," said Kimmerle.
Most of the unmarked graves found so far are near where black children were housed, so many of the former residents say that white children were likely buried elsewhere.
Straley describes a school that was deeply segregated and tied to a labor and criminal justice system in Florida that could force children to work. The school's presses did all the printing for the state in the 1930s and 40s.
"The black boys did all the agriculture, the beef and chicken and cattle and grunt work," he said. "We had it better on our side -- radio, laundry and the printing job."
Straley worked as a "hospital boy," mopping floors, collecting urine samples and even helping the "almost blind" doctor set broken bones and stitch wounds.
Kimmerle used ground-penetrating radar to detect disturbances in the soil that revealed at least 50 burial shafts. She said her team can, depending how much of the skeletal remains are recovered, do a biological profile and learn more about a child's diet, disease and health indicators like illness or stress.
"It's a pretty comprehensive method that tells you a lot about a person and their life and death," she said. "If there was a lot of labor or repetitive activity there are signs of wear on the bones and if there was trauma, whether a person in life healed, we see evidence of that."
The coffins of the two boys found, one with decorative handles of the Art Deco period and the other closed shut with nails, provide clues to when they died.
The remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for DNA testing to see if they match DNA donated by 10 families who have come forward in search of missing relatives.
One woman, Ovell Krell of Lakeland, Fla., said her brother was buried somewhere on the school grounds. George Owen Smith was only 14.
Krell, who is white, said that Owen was sent to the school when he ran away from home in 1940 to pursue musical talent in Nashville. Along the way, he met up with a 19-year-old and got into some trouble.
"My parents weren't notified of any kind of a hearing, just a letter saying he was there," said Krell, now 84 and a retired police officer. "The next thing you know, we got a letter saying he'd escaped, but somehow he got returned to the school. [His mother] kept writing, but never heard anything."
A letter from Owen eventually did arrive in October of that year. "The part that jumped off the page for me was, 'I got what was coming to me,'" said Krell. "After that, we never heard a single word."
In December, the school wrote that Owen could not be located, so Krell's mother informed them she would be arriving in person to find her son.
"The morning before she got there, they said his body had been located under a house in Marianna and he had died of pneumonia," she said. "His body was so badly decomposed they could only identify him by the numbers on his shirt collar."
The family instructed the school to deliver the body to the nearest funeral home, but by the time they arrived on campus, Owen had been buried in an unmarked grave, roped off from access, said Krell, who was only 12 at the time. And because the terrain has changed, she cannot remember where.
"They knew Mom was coming and cooked this story up," Krell said. "By the smell of him ... he had been dead a long time."
Krell said that if her brother's remains are found, "I will be forever grateful and could with a peaceful mind. My mother never got over it."
Straley and the other white house boys pushed for a state probe of the missing children, but it didn't happen until 2008, when the press launched their own investigations and families began to take notice.
Krell said when she finally met the white house boys, her brother's death made some sense.
"When they told their stories, I almost lost it," she said. "I could see someone doing that to my brother and it would have been enough to kill him."
Straley said he had witnessed a 15-year-old after a 100-lash beating: "They whipped most of the skin off of him. The flesh on his back and upper legs were red, black and bloody like hamburger meat."
After three days, Straley said he never saw the boy again. Children were too afraid to tell.
"If anyone talked and it got out, they were down for a beating of their life, or they ended up dead," he said.
Straley said the experience left him with a sense of helplessness and a "rage problem," and he turned to risk-taking activities "to prove I wasn't afraid."
After many more brushes with the law, he ran a successful business manufacturing glow sticks for rock concerts. He married, had a daughter who died, and eventually wrote a book, "The Boys of the Dark," with journalist Michael McCarthy, who was also a resident at Dozier, and author Robin Gaby Fisher.
Straley and others went back to the Dozier grounds last year to plant a tree in front of the notorious white house.
"A Vietnam vet told me he would rather do another tour than go back to the white house," said Straley. "There wasn't one of them -- homeless people, drunks, rich people and business people -- who didn't break down and cry. I realized six months ago that you can never go back to Marianna as a man, you only go back as that little boy you were."