TALLAHASSEE — Charles Rambo saw news reports of beatings and abuse at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna 50 years ago and knew exactly what they were talking about.
“I was there. I had personal experience,” said Rambo, 67, a minister at the Christ the Lord Church in Atlanta.
He is now one of dozens of former students of the school who have come forward to tell state investigators their stories. The state is trying to determine whether crimes were committed during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s when the school engaged in corporal punishment, and if so, what to do about it today. A class action suit in Pinellas County by 150 former students has been filed and, the lead lawyer says, “it’s growing every day.”
Rambo was 12 when he was arrested for jumping the fence of a Tallahassee swimming pool. He was sent to the Dozier School for 11 months in 1955. The brutal beatings he experienced there, used as routine discipline, still haunt him.
“I was 25 before I could sleep in the dark,” Rambo said. At a news conference on Friday, he recalled how “six days a week,” school officials would drive to the side of the school where black boys were segregated and — at noon and at 4:30 p.m. — collect those who were to be punished.
They were driven to the White House, the cement block building on the white side of the school campus where punishment would be meted out.
Rambo was beaten once, for lying about using a curse word. He was forced to grasp the sides of a cot and beaten with a weighted leather razor strap — two feet long, six inches wide and an inch thick — as many as 100 licks.
“You hold the bed while the punishment is being administered to you,” Rambo recalled.
Any instinctive attempt to protect yourself was punished, too.
“If you turn the bed and grab yourself, they start it all back over again,” he said. They called it “turning the bed loose.”
The memory is vivid, and haunting.
“And the scar tissue on the back of your behind and legs can take two to three weeks to calm down,” he said.
Rambo came forward this week to tell his story to investigators at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement because — while many other plaintiffs have come forward — few have been black.
In October, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice admitted that the abuses took place and apologized to a group of former students.
In December, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into the beatings and the 32 unmarked graves on the black side of the school campus. And in January, 87 former students filed a lawsuit in Pinellas County Circuit Court.
Among the claims the plaintiffs — now numbering 150 — have made: some boys were sodomized with a ‘probing rod.’ Another died after being shoved into an industrial clothes dryer. A boy’s arms and legs were tied to two trees while he was repeatedly kicked in the groin, and school employees placed bets on which of them could draw first blood during the beatings.
“If someone came into my office and told me this story I wouldn’t believe them, but it’s the same story with some variation no matter who you talk to and it has to be true,” said Thomas Masterson, the Pinellas lawyer who filed the suit.
He said that Rambo’s story rings true as well. “Most of the white people say they could see what was happening on the black side and most of the white kids said the black kids got it much worse,” he said.
The lawsuit names former Marianna reform school employees Troy Tidwell and Robert Curry as defendants, as well as four state departments, including the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Rambo has not joined the lawsuit but he has hired an attorney, Fred Flowers, of Tallahassee. He said he will await the FDLE investigation but wants “a full accounting and disclosure of what happened’’ and is also pursuing a claims bill to allow victims of the school and their heirs to be compensated.
Flowers said precedent was established when the governor and Legislature passed a claims bill to compensate victims of the massacre at Rosewood, the black town in Levy County that was destroyed by whites in a 1920s race riot.
“We want to see what the governor is finally going to do to try to make right a wrong,” Flowers said.