The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boys were beaten and abused at a Florida reform school. Now Colson Whitehead fictionalizes that history.

Former president Barack Obama just put “The Nickel Boys,” which chronicles the cruelties of the Dozier school, at the top of his summer reading list.

The buildings that housed the Dozier School for Boys were locked after it was finally closed after more than a century of abuse. (Brendan Farrington/AP)

Almost as soon as it opened Jan. 1, 1900, the juvenile reform school in Marianna, Fla., became the subject of exposes and damning reports by government investigators and journalists.

Students at the 1,400-acre institution, originally known as the Florida State Reform School, were chained to walls and subjected to extraordinarily harsh beatings, according to one University of South Florida report.

Six state-led investigations filled up the school’s first 13 years, and then, in 1914, a fire killed eight boys and two men. Until 1968, black children lived in one part of campus, whites in another. By June 2011, the school finally shut down. But investigators have found dozens of unmarked graves on the property in recent years.

In Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Nickel Boys,’ an idealistic black teen learns a harsh reality

With so much history of violence and racial enmity, the school became harrowing fodder for Colson Whitehead, an African American writer whose 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad” won the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, “The Nickel Boys,” chronicles the plight of a black teenager named Elwood Curtis at the fictional Nickel Academy in the fictional panhandle town of Eleanor, Fla., during the 1960s.

Former president Barack Obama put it at the top of his summer reading list earlier this week.

Throughout the novel, Whitehead borrows true details of Dozier’s past and makes them part of Nickel Academy’s story, an act of literary homage acknowledging Dozier’s victims as well as the work of reporters, investigators and former inmates who’d already published books, reports and journalistic accounts on the school.

In Whitehead’s novel, for instance, the beatings at Nickel Academy take place in a building called the White House, nicknamed the “Ice Cream Factory,” which are the same names for the concrete facility where Dozier boys were whipped with a leather strap attached to a wooden handle. Nickel Academy’s cemetery is named the same thing as Dozier’s: Boot Hill. In Whitehead’s novel, a University of South Florida student discovers unmarked graves on Nickel’s campus; in real life, a team of forensic anthropologists from the same university has been deploying radar technology to investigate the ground beneath campus.

Three years after the Florida State Reform School opened, a 1903 investigative report to the Florida Senate said that inmates were found in “irons” and that the school is “nothing more nor less than a prison,” according to an investigative report in the then-St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Two years later, the Manatee Record editorialized that the school was “in sad need of reform” and demanded that the state legislature set up an investigation into its poor conditions. The school, the newspaper wrote, “has so far failed in its purpose as to be scarcely on a par with the ordinary convict camp.”

It was created as a refuge for needy kids. Instead, they were raped and drugged.

In 1912, the Jacksonville Metropolis noted an investigation — by the newspaper or by another entity, it was not clear — revealing that a superintendent was “in the habit of brutally beating his charges.” The article said that “there is no adequate place to care for the sick” and that “in the negro school, conditions are shown to be heartrending” and crowded. The campus, the article noted, was beset by “insufficient food and unsanitary conditions.”

Then there was the fire of 1914, which killed eight boys and two adults inside a brick dormitory. Although the fire was considered accidental, press coverage noted that the fire escapes were locked, preventing people from fleeing. (Whitehead’s fictionalized school also suffered a dormitory fire.) The Pensacola Journal’s reporter did not spare readers the gruesome details:

The charred bodies of the unfortunate victims of the awful holocaust were dragged from the bed of coals and ashes inside the walls of the burned building and placed under a tree at the rear of the building that had been killed by the fire. Of most of the bodies nothing remained but charred lumps of flesh and bone representing the bodies and organs that had been roast to an unrecognizable blackened mass. Two of the larger ones, however, retain the shape of the human body with all the vital organs exposed. In none was there the slightest semblance of a possibility of recognition. ... The entire city and country are horrified at the terrible disaster, which is perhaps the worst of its kind in the history of the state.
— The Pensacola Journal, November 19, 1914.

Decades later, the school came under even more intense examination when a former school psychologist gave an interview to the Miami News for the newspaper’s two-part series on the facility. (The reporter was none other than Jane Wood Reno, the mother of future U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a Clinton appointee.)

The psychologist, Eugene Byrd, told her how the student beatings transpired. First, a boy would lie down on a narrow hospital bed and stretch his arms above his head, hold on to the bed’s bars, and if he wanted, bury his face in a pillow. (In Whitehead’s novel, the protagonist suffers a beating in similar fashion.) Then, a staff member would whip the boys with a leather strap “22 inches long, four inches wide and a half inch thick.” Said Byrd: “The beatings are called paddlings, but they are beatings delivered with the full force of a grown man. They wear out the straps on the boys.” Byrd even named the school officials complicit in the atrocities: assistant superintendent R.W. Hatton, who “does most of this,” the newspaper reported, while he said the superintendent, Arthur Dozier — and future namesake of the school — counted the blows.

Dozier, in his interview with the Miami paper, justified the beatings. “The spankings are a thing I detest, I abhor, in truth,” he said. “But we do have the responsibility for keeping overall control of all boys in an institution of this size, as well as doing the most possible for each youngster.”

It would take years for the inmates to fight back. In December 1982, youth advocates filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of about 1,000 children at Dozier, and two other reformatory schools in Florida, alleging overcrowding, harsh punishment such as solitary confinement, and other constitutional violations. The lawsuit said Dozier students were hog-tied, meaning that they had to lie face down on their stomachs with their “wrists handcuffed behind their backs then connected to heir shackled ankles,” according to a Pacific News Service story. The state settled in 1987, agreeing to give students specialized education plans and reduce the population at each school to 100 by 1990.

By the mid-2000s, groups of men who’d endured torture at Dozier found each other online and began calling attention to their abuse at the school decades earlier. In 2008, then-St. Petersburg Times reporter Ben Montgomery noticed an Associated Press story buried in his newspaper. “Torture of kids remembered,” the headline read. The article described how, five days earlier, a group of five men who were imprisoned at the facility in the 1950s and 1960s returned to watch an official from the state’s juvenile justice department close and seal the White House — the building where beatings occurred, which had been shuttered since 1967.

The story’s 16 paragraphs astonished him and his editor, Montgomery recalled in an interview. The men who’d gathered at the school told the AP about students being hit more than 100 times with a three-foot long leather strap stuffed with sheet metal. One building on campus, across from the White House, was known by students as “the rape room.” One man told the AP that he was sent to the boys school after he fled a Jacksonville orphanage where a woman was molesting him. “But after his first trip to the White House, he knew he would have been better off at the orphanage,” the AP story said.

The day it published, Montgomery said, two other alumni from the school showed up at the newspaper to tell their stories. They wound up speaking to another of the paper’s reporters, Waveney Ann Moore. Eventually, she, Montgomery and photographer Edmund D. Fountain teamed up to work on a project about the school. But they weren’t the only ones who wanted to inspect Dozier’s past. So did then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who two months later ordered the state’s Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the men’s abuse claims. He also wanted the probe to determine whose remains were buried under the school’s makeshift cemetery, how they might have died, and whether any crimes led to their deaths.

For much of 2009, the St. Petersburg Times and state law enforcement officials dug into the school’s past in parallel investigations.

The newspaper reporters wound up producing multiple articles that year about the school’s troubled past, interviewing several former inmates about their beatings and their pursuit of a lawsuit against one of the officials who they said unleashed an inordinate amount of the beatings. The stories depicted a house of horrors and featured a graphic photo showing the buttocks of a grown man whose scars from beatings decades earlier at the school were still visible.

Meanwhile, Florida’s law enforcement department interviewed more than 100 people — former inmates, their relatives and ex-staffers — and heard repeatedly about them being hit multiple times with a heavy leather paddle that resulted in bleeding, stitches and scars.

But in March 2010, prosecutors declined to bring charges, citing the statute of limitations and the lack of specificity in many allegations. As for the cemetery, investigators could not substantiate any claims that the dozens of boys buried there died as a result of a crime. The next month, in April 2010, the trio of St. Petersburg Times staffers were named as Pulitzer Prize finalists for their articles on Dozier. A year later, the state shut down the school — which had been renamed yet again to the North Florida Youth Development Center — once and for all.

Since then, investigators continue finding unmarked graves on the property. Just in April, 27 “anomalies” in the ground “consistent with possible graves” were found during a pollution cleanup at the campus, according to the New York Times.

And now, Whitehead’s novel dramatizing the school’s history and its victims’ traumatic experiences is creating its own headlines. But will any of the Dozier Boys read about the Nickel Boys of Whitehead’s imagination?

“Why would you make a fiction book — this is just me — out of something so horrible?” asked Jerry Cooper, 74, of Fort Myers, Fla., who served time at the reformatory school in 1961 as a teenager and says he was once whipped with the strap 135 times. “But I will get the book. I am going to read it. No matter how the word gets out about what happened at the school, it should just get out. I appreciate [Whitehead] doing the story.”

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