Little Tommy wets the bed. He’s scared of the dark, and he has nightmares. He suffers from depression. When its time for “lights out” in his cottage, he curls-up in the fetal position and wonders where does the love of God go? The year is 1964, Tommy is nine years old, and he’s incarcerated in the now infamous Okeechobee boys’ reform school in Florida. Fast forward almost 50 years and Tommy is not little anymore. His psyche has mercifully blocked-out many of his recollections of this place where he spent a year, but some still linger. His crime? He was truant from school once too often. A judge decided that for his own good he would be sent there. Okeechobee was one of two schools of its kind in Florida back then, the other being Marianna.
Marianna was full-up and so was Okeechobee, so Little Tommy languished in the Sanford adult jail in Seminole County for several months, segregated from the other prisoners. A bed finally became available at Okeechobee so that’s where he ended-up. Because of his extended stay in jail with no sunlight, Tommy became very pale and white, thus he was nick-named “Casper” by the other boys and staff at Okeechobee.
Life was not easy for Tommy during his stay there. He was beaten often, usually under the slightest pretense of some infraction. He was also raped by two members of the staff. There is no shame in being raped. The shame belongs to the rapist. Beatings and rapes were all too common for the boys in Marianna and Okeechobee. The beatings have now made the news, even after all of these years. They were brutal and bloody. Sometimes the boys would be given over a hundred strokes with a flat piece of aluminum sandwiched between two leather straps. No one ever got less that a dozen licks according to Tommy. He said you could always tell who got whipped and how badly because it would be evident during shower time. The buttocks and backs of the boys would be black and blue. Sometimes the wounds and open sores would still be bleeding. Some victims would have to be helped by the other boys just to walk. If you screamed, you got worse. Their philosophy was to scare you so bad that you’d never try to run away. You became like an automaton, going through the motions of day to day life and hoping you wouldn’t be selected for a beating by the guards.
Tommy was the product of an indifferent mother who never visited him once during his year there. His estranged father lived in Chicago and he too never came to see him. For all intents and purposes Tommy didn’t have anyone to look out for him. During that year he only had one visit and that was from an uncle who drove Tommy’s maternal grandfather there. When Tommy’s time was up he was ten years old, and it was 1965. His grandfather bought him a one-way bus ticket and sent him to live with Tommy’s aunt and uncle in Vanleer, here in Dickson County to work on their farm. When he turned 18 he tried to be a soldier, and enlisted in the army. Alas, he could not escape the trauma he’d been through at the hands of Okeechobee. He had been damaged very badly, more than he realized. Being shouted at by drill sergeants and enduring barracks life brought back too many bad memories. Tommy suffered a nervous breakdown and was mustered-out. Through no fault of his own, his dream of making the army his home didn’t pan-out.
In spite of the speed-bumps put into Tommy’s life, he’s been able to lead a productive life. He still resides right here in Dickson and is a good husband, dad, and grandfather. He never met a stranger and has many, many friends. For the record, his full name is Thomas Harmon. I had assured him that he needn’t use his real name but he wanted me to. You may be asking yourself why after all this time would he want to talk about this? Tommy’s response is that he owes it to the boys in the unmarked graves who are buried down there in Marianna and Okeechobee. These are the boys who didn’t make it out of there alive. He says he also owes it to his fellow survivors who have decided to tell their stories regarding these abominable places. More and more men have come forward to talk about their abuse at the hands of the guards at these reform schools. They call themselves “The Whitehouse Boys” and there are over 300 of them uniting to get some measure of closure and justice. At least two of them have written books. The statute of limitations has long expired, and most of the principal players who worked there are dead. Their only recourse for justice is to have a bill introduced into the Florida Senate by a Special Master Clerk which would hold the state responsible for the brutality (and probable beating deaths) of some of these boys. If you would like to read more about this, all you need to do is Google “Whitehouse Boys, Florida”. You’ll be able to pull-up a wealth of info and links, including pics and videos of the unmarked graves, a surviving staff member, interviews, etc. You’ll then understand the significance of the name “Whitehouse Boys”. We have one of these survivors right here in our midst, and it took a lot of guts for him to tell his story.
These two hellholes are thankfully shut-down now, but let’s not forget their purpose……. they were for the boys’ own good!