Tag Archives: Dozier School

Uncovering the Lost Boys at the Dozier School: Pt. 3 – Writing my novel through grief (via Medium)


Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

In 2013 and 2014, I wrote posts about the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys after I learned that my great-uncle was buried there as a teenager in 1937.

I decided to write a novel about it, The Reformatory, which is still in progress.

In the post on Medium, I open up about how grief has both stalled and spurred my creative process as I’m writing a novel steeped in family history about a haunted reformatory in my fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida.

I have been writing past my grief, and you can too.

READ my Medium essay here. 


Filed under On writing, Social Justice

Unburying the Lost Boys, Pt. 2: the real-life horrors at the Dozier School

AUGUST 2015 UPDATE: The remains of my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, were positively identified from the Dozier School cemetery. [Read more here.] 

MARCH 2014 UPDATE: The [Rof South Florida exhumed 55 bodies from the cemetery.

In 1937, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was buried at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, with perhaps up to 100 other boys who never came home after being sentenced to the notorious reformatory. Last September, I went to Marianna with my father, husband and son to observe the beginning of exhumations at the site. I started writing this post the first week of September in 2013, and I’m only completing it in January of 2014. This was hard to write.

 This is not only a story about the past. This story illustrates why our criminal justice system—racially biased and more and more dependent upon private prisons—is itself in dire need of reform.

Dozier School dorm (present day) PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Dozier School dorm (present day)
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

 “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow;

I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

–Dozier School Superintendent Walter Rawls

Letter to the Board of Managers,

Dec. 1, 1906

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013

The deputy sitting parked in his cruiser at the tree line gives us a slate with a form to sign, passes out badges we clip to our clothes.  Then he directs us to Boot Hill, the cemetery hidden in the woods on the former grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—Florida’s most infamous reformatory.

“Follow the dirt road along the tree line,” the deputy says. “Turn left at the mudhole.”

And so my husband, Steven Barnes, drives on with a carload of us: me, our 9-year-old son, Jason, and my 78-year-old father, civil rights attorney John Due. It’s only ten-thirty in the morning in Marianna, but the day already promises to be hot.

We drive into the moss-draped woods.

We are puzzling over what the mudhole might look like when Jason spots it—a huge puddle of thick mud on the roadside. Suddenly we are at the site of unearthed secrets.  Makeshift crosses mark earlier visitors’ best guesses about where the dead are buried beneath the red soil.

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013, after a lengthy fight waged by families and survivors white and black, journalists, the NAACP, the Florida Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida, researchers began their careful digging far from the crosses—where radar equipment used by USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s team found signs of unmarked graves.

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

One of the boys who died was my great-uncle Robert Stephens, who was reportedly stabbed to death by another boy in 1937. But in the fog of misery and mystery, how can we have blind faith in the claims made by Dozier?

Until the Florida Attorney General’s office called me in March, I had never heard about Robert Stephens, the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, whose name was listed in the Dozier School records as one of the boys who died there.  He was fifteen when he died.

My aunt, civil rights activist Priscilla Stephens Kruize, says she never heard about him or his death.  I do not know if my grandmother ever knew that her husband had lost a brother there.  Robert Stephens died two years before my mother was born.

Seventy-six years later, in 2013 Rev. Ronald Mizer of St. James AME Church, the Jackson County NAACP president, led a prayer with my family beneath the mossy trees as researchers paused their digging.  My father, husband, son and I held hands and bowed our heads.

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes PHOTO: Tananarive Due

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes
PHOTO: Tananarive Due










Afterward, my husband planned to take our 9-year-old son, Jason, to a nearby tourist attraction while my father and I stayed behind to watch the excavation. But Jason surprised us all: he chose to put on gloves to sift through the soil with researchers.

Jason picked up a shovel to try to unearth his family’s past.

“Look at that!” my father kept saying, watching his grandson at work.

This unburying has been a process of years. Of tearing down the woods.  Of digging shallow trenches. Of revealing long-held secrets. Of searching for anyone who might remember the dead—who might have heard a lost boy laugh or cry, or who lay awake nights in worry.  Some of the stories are so old, dating back to 1900, that no one is left to remember.


My son Jason (then 9) works along USF researchers to search for the remains of his distant relative, Robert Stephens, and the other Lost Boys
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

My father, husband, son and I came to mourn a stranger who was far from a stranger. Though we never knew of Robert Stephens, his loss had a ripple effect on my mother’s father and therefore on my mother.  That loss shaped attitudes, family dynamics, dreams.

What is any family’s incalculable toll when a child never comes home?  Has died violently?  Was likely imprisoned unjustly because of his skin color, like so many of our children still are today?

Last July, my father and aunt went to Tampa to witness the DNA swabs taken from surviving family members of the lost.  One of the men, named Robert Stephens after our long-dead relative, told the Tampa Bay Times that he volunteered a swab to help “find the truth.”

Not everything that’s buried is gone.


The stories from the Dozier School’s history are harrowing. The more you learn, the worse it gets.

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011. It was finally closed in 2011 after a history of investigations and complaints.

A Dozier School building today. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

A Dozier School building today.
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which pioneered coverage of the story, in 2008 survivors came forward with stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. In the CNN interview linked below, a family member alleges that her brother was murdered at the hands of school guards.  In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of foul play at the site.

But in 2012, USF’s Kimmerle used the ground penetrating radar she has used to investigate war crimes around the world for the United Nations—and she found traces of 19 more grave shafts than the FDLE.  There are more bodies than there are records for.  School records show that another 22 boys died at the school, but their bodies were never accounted for.  Kimmerle believes most of the boys buried there were black, though both black and white students died at the Dozier School.

Who are the dead boys, and how did they die?  Reports show that a fire claimed 12 lives. A flu epidemic claimed others.  But it doesn’t account for so many dead.

Ovell Smith Krell’s brother Owen Smith was sent to the school in 1940, and she told CNN that her family never saw him again.  School administrators reported that he ran away and later died of pneumonia, but a former Dozier student later told her Owen was shot and killed by Dozier school administrators when he tried to run away across an open field.  Dozier School survivor Robert Straley told CNN that other boys were killed there too.  HEAR THEM ON CNN HERE.


Fifty years later, grown men are haunted by the screams from the White House, where the beatings were dispensed.  Survivors have created their own website: www.whitehouseboys.com.  (In a moving Miami Herald video on the site, Michael O. McCarthy describes a brutal beating where he was struck more than 30 times: “They destroyed my childhood,” he says.)

Black survivors of the Dozier School have a Facebook page.

As one survivor, Charles Stephens, described it last April, two men held him down on a table while a third man lashed him. He said his back was so torn to shreds that his shirt had to be removed by a doctor.  His parents were unable to visit him that weekend.  He never told them about the horrors of his beatings, he said—he told the story for the first time in a room full of strangers meeting to advocate for exhumations at the school.

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. They traded accounts at a meeting near the school in April, 2013. 
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

“I stayed in the infirmary two weeks after my last beating,” said Stephens (no relation), who spent 18 months at the Dozier School in the 1960s, when he was 13. At age 61, the Panama City resident told his story publicly for the first time at the meeting last April.

“I ain’t never got over it, but I survived it,” he said, voice quavering. “I’m sure some little kids died of pure fear.  …Every time I went [to the White House], I made sure I got sent first so I wouldn’t hear the screams and hollering.”

Charles Stephens is white.  Other survivors were black—as are the majority of the dead, researchers believe.  But although the boys at the Dozier School were segregated by race, white and black boys suffered together.

Jacksonville resident Cocomo Rock, who is black and sports dreadlocks, was sent to Dozier in August of 1966, when he was eleven.  He lived there 22 months.  As he listened to Stephens recall his time at Dozier, he could relate all too well.

“I counted every day and every moment I was here,” Rock said.

Another survivor tells a story about how he found a single bright pebble to train his thoughts away from his White House beating, held it oh-so-tight to forget the pain—and still keeps the pebble in his pocket to this day.

Burials records at Boot Hill stretch from 1914 to 1952, although the report cites school-related Dozier deaths until 1973.

The culture of abuse, survivors say, lasted beyond the last recorded school death in 1952.

The reformatory was all wrong from the start.  According to the USF report, Florida led six investigations into the “school” in its first thirteen years. Boys in chains. Boys whipped mercilessly. Boys leased out for labor.

In Florida, prisoners were in a convict lease system.  (In the wake of bogus vagrancy laws, according to the USF report, Florida’s black prison population rose dramatically, with convicts turned over to labor agents.)  And the Dozier School was a labor farm—which, despite its name, never had desks in its early years, according to the USF report. Boys were put to work.

Dozier School History USF

In 1906, the school superintendent complained that the school had too few inmates to bring in the crops; the Board of Managers changed sentencing guidelines and eliminated fees, and the population of children grew. (I can’t help thinking about Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Pennsylvania, sentenced to 28 years in prison for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities in a “kids for cash” scheme.)

Were boys shot or mauled while trying to escape? Or was “trying to escape” a euphemism for random offenses at the jailers’ discretion?

Remember: the Dozier School is set against set against the backdrop of bitter racial hatred and oppressive Jim Crow laws of Florida’s past. A former juvenile inmate said at the April 2013 meeting that Dozier guards “set the dogs on you” if children tried to run.

And enough boys died at the Dozier School that it had its own cemetery.  Surviving records indicate that the institution tended to underreport the actual number of deaths.


“These are children who came here and died for one reason or another and quite literally have been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle told CNN.  “It’s about restoring dignity and if not putting a name to them, at least acknowledging and marking that they’re here.”  SEE KIMMERLE ON CNN HERE.

Ultimately, the state of Florida’s legislature approved $90,000 for the excavation. The U.S. Justice Department gave another $423,000 to match DNA from the remains to family members.

Said a survivor, Robert Straley, on CNN: “I’m angry at the state because they let this go on for 68 years and did nothing about it.”  He said he was beaten with a leather strap and that some school leaders killed boys and made them disappear.  “It’s important to find all the boys who were buried there. They’re practically crawling out of their graves crying, ‘Help remember me.’”

We hear you, children.  We hear you.

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

MY COMPLETE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201870003772295.1073741826.1249308782&type=1&l=226a980a4e




2014: ABCActionNews.com: http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-tampa/tampa-mans-uncle-identified-from-dozier-school-for-boys-grave

2009 Tampa Bay Times roundup: http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/dozier/

2013 Tampa Bay Times excavation coverage (with photos): http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/human-remains-found-in-shallow-hole-at-dozier-school/2139448







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Unburying the Lost Boys at the Dozier School (a real-life horror story) Pt. 1

UPDATE 8/30: On my way to Marianna, Florida, with my father, husband and son.  Exhumations will begin. The remains of the Lost Boys, including my mother’s uncle, will soon be brought into the light. 



Why do you write horror?  How can horror fiction be escapism? 

That familiar query from readers pops to mind as I’m riding with my father from Atlanta down to northern Florida to visit the site where the notorious Dozier School for Boys once stood as a real-life boogeyman to juvenile offenders from around the state of my birth.

Some former prisoners say boys were beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted. And as the cemetery behind the school still attests—called “Boot Hill” by locals—some of the boys sent to the Dozier School never came home.

Praying for answers at the makeshift cemetery: (left to right) Sam Palmer, John Due, Elmore Bryant

Praying for answers at the makeshift cemetery: (left to right) Sam Palmer, John Due, Elmore Bryant

One was a 15-year-old boy named Robert Stephens, my late mother’s uncle.  In 1937, Robert Stephens died after allegedly being stabbed by another inmate.  He was unceremoniously buried on the school grounds, along with 30 other boys the school had official records for. The school blamed a fire for some of the deaths, an influenza epidemic for others. (The school opened in 1900 and only closed in 2011 amid investigations.  The deaths may have continued until the 1950s.)

But University of South Florida researcher Erin Kimmerle, who has used radar equipment tested at mass grave sites in regions like Kosovo, says at least 50 bodies are actually buried at Boot Hill.  No records exist of how or why they died.

Some Dozier School survivors fear the worst, claiming that torture and beatings might have gone too far.  In a CNN story linked below, a Dozier survivor recalls being haunted by seeing a black boy punished in a clothes dryer and being too afraid to come to his aid.

Today, the Florida legislature voted to allocate $200,000 to the university to exhume the bodies and do DNA testing to try to identify the remains and other tests to try to determine the cause of death.  Over the past several weeks, the Florida Attorney General’s office and Dr. Kimmerle have reached out to families to inform them that they suspect relatives are buried at Boot Hill and to be certain that no one objected to exhumations.

One of those families was mine.

As far as I know, my late mother never heard the story of her uncle’s death at Boot Hill, or perhaps did not know of his existence.  He died two years before she was born. But for some families, the missing boys were an open wound that kept parents awake at night with unanswered questions.

Families have been hard to reach.  In most cases, surviving relatives who knew the boys are very aged or long ago passed away.

Although white boys were buried at the Dozier School too, investigators believe the majority of the dead were black.

For now, they are simply the Lost Boys.

At noon Saturday, local and state NAACP leaders are holding a community meeting at the Dozier School grounds.

“There’s no responsibility or accountability as to what happened to these boys,” says my father, civil rights attorney John Due, who often gets emotional when he talks about the Dozier School.  As we’re driving, he’s reminding me that my late maternal grandmother had a traumatic response to growing up in northern Florida, where Marianna is located.

Tananarive Due with her father, attorney John Due

Tananarive Due with her father, attorney John Due

When she was young, her own family had a tragic brush with the state’s criminal justice system when her half brother was executed as a juvenile.  I witnessed how that loss reverberated through the generations, having an impact long after he was gone.  My mother and grandmother did not like to discuss the execution publicly.

“Somehow we need to get some answers about what actually has happened at the Dozier School, and we need to reconnect to the total community of north Florida,” my father says. “We cannot continue to live hiding, hiding, hiding, this trauma.  We need to face it and then move on.”

But in a criminal justice system that is increasingly privatized and a War on Drugs that continues to target the poor and offenders of color, “moving on” is easier said than done.  Even if the screams of the boys at the Dozier School have been silenced, countless inmates—juveniles and adults—still languish in a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

Will finding the remains of the Lost Boys help insure that the horrors of yesterday are not repeated today?

I would like to think so.

But regardless, every child buried at Boot Hill had a story to tell—and hopefully those stories will soon find the light.

Tananarive Due, the Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner.  She has written twelve novels and a civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (with her late mother, Patricia Stephens Due).  She and her husband, Steven Barnes, are currently co-producing a short horror film, Danger Word, starring Frankie Faison: www.dangerwordfilm.com.






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