Imagine walking into a school cafeteria, blood is dripping down to the ground from your head, and the only thing other students want to know is: “Did you hold the bed?”
The bed that these students were referring to was in the so-called White House, a small building at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys where hundreds of kids were abused, beaten, molested, tortured, and even killed for over a century.
During Florida A&M University’s 13thAnnual Spring Literary Forum, a member of the “White House Boys” — a group of more than 300 men who have come out to share their stories about their horrific experiences at this now-closed state-run institution in Marianna an hour west of Tallahassee — pastor Johnny Lee Gaddy, led a most memorable panel discussion. Gaddy’s candid and vivid memories of his most horrific experiences at the reformatory school were nothing short of courageous.
Gaddy, who would often skip school to avoid being picked on for his stutter, was sent to the reformatory school for truancy when he was just 11 years old. He stayed at the school from 1957-1961.
“The truant officer lied to my mom and told her that he was just taking me to go see a judge. I knew there wasn’t a judge there at this time of night but my mother, a very easygoing and religious woman, told me to not run and go with him,” he recalled. “When I got there, he put me in a booking cell and said that he wanted me to sit here until the judge came back. After I fell asleep, he came to my cell and said, ‘Hey boy, get up.’ When I asked where was the judge, he said, ‘Nigger you are going to Marianna,’” he said.
When Gaddy arrived at the reform school he was assigned to the farm crew where he as well as many other boys would farm for the food at 6 a.m. every other day on the hill that they would all prepare to eventually eat.
“Dozier was a bad boy school, and I was labeled as a bad boy. But we had boys that were just 6 years old there and I would always wonder what they did that was so bad that they came to Dozier,” he said.
In fact, Gaddy also shared a story where he was sent to the notorious White House for the first time after the men at school claimed he was talking back when they told him to leave a 6-year-old boy in the mud after he fell out from work.
“After he picked the boy up, he drug us both to the White House. He said I want you to lay on that bed, grab that railing, look at that notch on that wall and you better not turn it loose. If you turn this bed loose, I can hit you below your belt and kill you,” he said.
As a kid taking several vicious blows across his body and head from a man with a firm leather strap, he did not manage to hold the bed, which he said was the worst thing that he could have ever done.
“That man went on to hit me all up on my back and head before yelling at me to get back on the bed for being a smart nigger,” he said.
Gaddy shared even more disturbing stories about being molested, how that haunted him for 64 years, and how he was unable to tell his wife until recently.
However, he doesn’t want his past traumas to continue to control his life. He instead wants younger people to learn from his mistakes and stay away from trouble.
“Freedom is the world. I tell people if they ever get you on papers your life is almost destroyed. All they have to do is push a button and pull your life history up. You don’t want to go to the schools that I went to where you have to get up when they say, go to bed when they say, and eat when they tell you to eat.”