Tallahassee, Florida - Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet will decide Tuesday whether to allow the remains of dozens of boys to be exhumed from decades-old graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
On Saturday, a group of former students from the state-operated reform school gathered at the site to talk about the torture they say they endured there at the hands of guards.
They call themselves the Black Boys at Dozier Reform School and they are calling on Gov. Scott and Cabinet leaders to approve a plan allowing bodies to be removed from an old, overgrown cemetery on the north side of the abandoned, state-owned Dozier Reform School, which closed in 2011.
State records list the gravesites of 31 boys who died during their time at Dozier School in the 1900's.
But University of South Florida archaeologists, using ground-penetrating radar, have discovered about 50 more unmarked graves around the cemetery. The researchers have been trying to get permission from the courts and the state of Florida to exhume bodies because families want to claim their relatives' remains.
But those efforts have been rejected so far.
Members of the Black Boys at Dozier Reform School, now in their 60's, 70's and 80's, believe the undocumented graves contain the bodies of boys murdered at the school.
Johnny Lee Gaddy says he was 11 years old in 1957 when he was taken to Dozier because had missed school.
He vividly recalls a horrific beating in a notorious building called the "White House" where beatings were routinely administered.
Gaddy says a school official, whom he only knew as "Mr. Marvin, a huge man, viciously beat him as he lay on a bed.
"And when he hit me, I never experienced a lick like that in my life and I prayed to God, momma, whoever would come and help me out of this predicament. And he told me, when he hit me I jumped up. He said, 'Boy, you don't get back on that bed I'll kill you right now.' So I had to get back on that bed and I held that bed. He had a belt that had holes in it and every time he would hit me with that belt, it would suck the skin from my behind."
Gaddy, now 67, says he still has scars from that beating, both physical and emotional.
"I still have dreams about it, you know, screaming, because they'd ride two or three boys at the same time and they would abuse us so bad it just don't go away."
Gaddy also cannot forget the time when he was taking garbage to the school's dump.
"I took a lot of garbage there all the time. But that particular time I saw a hand, a boy's hand. And I asked, 'What's a hand doing in here?' He (a friend) said, 'I'll tell you, don't ever mention that to nobody because you can end up like that.' So I didn't mention it to nobody. I was scared all the time."
Arthur Huntley says he's angry, not at the world, but at the state of Florida for the way it treated boys at Dozier Reform School.
He lived there in 1957 and 1959, along with his brother Richard, because they were orphans.
"You speak of injustice. What do you think when children are beaten, raped, abused and worked like slaves in the milk area. What do you think when you get beat until the blood runs down your legs and your lower body feels numb, knowing that at any given moment at Dozier you could become one of the boys buried there in the woods, never to be seen again."
Huntley says he is haunted to this day by the screams of boys beaten at Dozier.
"The sound of little boys screaming and hollering still pierces my ears today. I can't run away from the sounds following me every day. The state of Florida treated us worse than animals."
John Bonner says he was housed at Dozier from 1967 to 1969. The school had previously been segregated with black boys on one side of the road and white boys on the other.
By the late 60's, the school was being integrated so Bonner says he lived on both sides of the campus during his stay.
But he calls the "black side" of campus the "slave side" because boys worked every day but received no credit or pay. On the other side of the campus across the highway, he says conditions were different but children were still abused by guards or "cottage fathers."
Bonner says he was beaten several times for what he described as "reckless eyeballing" -- once the beating was for looking at a female staff worker and another time for "looking at a male supervisor the wrong way."
Bonner says Dozier was more like a prison than a reform school for boys.
"This was a living hell for many boys, black and white. This school destroyed the lives of many boys, black and white. I am back today seeking justice and closure. I will not abandon these boys buried here for they have been forgotten and denied far too long and justice is near."
Richard Huntley, who lived at Dozier from 1957 - 1959, says the facility was a modern-day child slave labor operation where you worked and you died.
Huntley says he is reminded every day "of those days of slavery" when he looks down at his foot and sees the damage that was done by cutting off the top of his toe when he worked in the fields.
Now he has a message for Gov. Scott.
"Today we call on you Rick Scott, your Cabinet and the state of Florida, to give the necessary permits to exhume the bones from the graves of Dozier reform school."
The former Dozier students say they are seeking justice for themselves and the boys who died there.
Huntley said he would try to speak for the boys in the old cemetery.
"Free us, free us, let our bones go home.
We can tell the truth, it's right here in our bones.
Don't leave us here in this grave unknown."
First Coast News