The Florida Cabinet as well as stakeholders involved in the issue are reviving a discussion about what should be done with the now defunct Dozier School for Boys, surrounded by allegations of abuse and deaths over the course of a century.
As a youngster, Charles Fudge was sent to the Florida School for Boys, or what’s now known as the Dozier School for Boys, for a year. The 67-year-old says he was an accessory to his brother taking money out of a lady’s purse, while they were mowing yards. He recalls two particular staffers beating him when he was 12.
“Within the first 30 days that I was there, I was taken down to what they call the White House,” said Fudge. “And, I was beaten 31 licks with a leather strap by Mr. [R.W.] Hatton. Another boy named Robert Straussberg was with me at the same time and he got 33 licks from Troy Tidwell with the same strap. We were made to lay on a cot with our head buried in a pillow and hold the rails on the cot, and if we didn’t do that, they would call kitchen boys to hold us down while they were beating us.”
Fudge says his life since then included three failed marriages and a three-year stint in prison when he was a teenager.
“It has affected my life mentally and emotional…losing my brother at 24-years-old, committing suicide,” he added. “It’s sad, and I know it all stems from all the abuse he took and the things that they did to him when he was there. He was in there in the 1950s, ’58 and ’59. And, we were there in ’60 and ’61.”
Fudge attended a recent Florida Cabinet meeting with one of his surviving brothers to talk about the future of the Dozier grounds.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater had put that item on the agenda—particularly wanting to discuss the role the Secretary of State may play in preserving historical resources and archiving data.
The conversation later turned to the future of the Panhandle property in general. Some suggestions included reviving a previous move to sell the land. That process was halted, when a judge agreed to delay the sale so a team of researchers could find and identify bodies believed to be buried on the Dozier grounds.
Citing asbestos and long-term neglect issues, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says some buildings on the property are beyond repair.
“But, in the middle, you’ve also got a giant school that could easily be put back into service for the community,” Putnam stated. “One of the magnificent recreational facility that could easily be rehabbed and put into service for the community…or things that begins to write a different future than what that land has seen in the last three generations.”
Other public speakers, like the NAACP’s Dale Landry, weighed in as well. He talked about making sure there are funds to help families who want to rebury their loved ones, whose remains have been identified.
“We also need to look at how we may repurpose that land, not resell it, repurpose it to do something good for Florida’s kids, for kids,” Landry suggested. “And, I think last but not least, we need to do a ceremony here. These are Florida’s children. We’re reclaiming our children.”
While Fudge is in favor of a memorial, he says there is another graveyard on what’s seen as the white side of the Boot Hill cemetery. And, he believes the team of University of South Florida researchers are out of funds to finish their work.
“I don’t agree totally with Mr. [Adam] Putnam, but I’m sure that property, until they find the remaining bodies, they should never let any kind of buildings be put on that property,” said Fudge. “Those boys…when we were sent there, we didn’t expect to be beaten and we certainly didn’t expect to die.”
But, Erin Kimmerle, the lead USF researcher, says while it’s up to the Cabinet to decide, she feels satisfied with the work her and her team have done so far.
Two years after the school closed down in 2011, Kimmerle and her team had started searching for boys’ remains. Of the 51 found, she’s identified six so far, and hopes to ID another 10 soon using DNA.
“Well, we’ve searched as exhaustively as we can, following all the leads, and I think we’ve found and done everything that we can in terms of fieldwork,” said Kimmerle. “So, right now, we’re really focused on identifying those that we have found and there’s a lot still to be done with trying to get those children named.”
And, while others have called it a bit premature, Atwater feels it was a very productive discussion.
“I think you can see how everyone was very open to the question: when is the right to time to really engage all the agencies and wisdom that’s really going to be necessary on what to do monumentally for this project archiving, displaying artifacts, telling the story, making sure the story is open, and I think you heard today how people….do we need more information? There’s going to be very different opinions on what should be done with the property,” said Atwater.
In January, Kimmerle and her team are expected to have a final report ready for the Florida Cabinet.
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