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Local man recalls abuse, torture at Marianna school
December 28, 2008 06:30:00 PM
By JON MILTIMORE / News Herald Writer
MARIANNA — Harold Sizemore was 8 years old when he first was sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna during the fall of 1950.
"At first, it was kind of like an adventure," Sizemore said. "But it ended up taking eight years of my life and turning into something else."
The school, now known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, has been under national scrutiny in recent months since four men came forward with allegations of severe physical abuse. The four former students, dubbed "the White House Boys" in reference to the white building where the alleged abuse happened, said beatings, torture and worse took place within those walls, behind generations of silence.
Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an inquiry into the 31 unmarked graves lying beneath school grounds.
‘It was like a holiday'
The Bay County man is now 66 years old. He has silver hair, a friendly smile and a twinkle in his dark eyes. After years of silence, Sizemore felt compelled to come forward.
He grew up in a poor family of 10 on the 1300 block of Jenks Avenue. His father was gregarious and kind, Sizemore said, but an alcoholic.
As a boy, Sizemore would spend days at a time living on the street, getting into trouble and making money however he could, cleaning fish for boat captains or diving in the bay for coins tossed by tourists.
"We were just street urchins, really," Sizemore said.
He recalled being teased at school for his shabby clothing, but the Marianna reform school was different and not altogether bad at first, he said.
"They gave you clean clothes, a toothbrush, shoe polish and jacket," Sizemore said. "It was like a holiday."
He spent considerable time at the school between 1950 and 1957. He initially was sent there for skipping school.
Sizemore said the reform school, with its discipline, structure and order, held an allure for a poor boy from the streets. Six cottages holding between 30-35 boys each were led by a "Cottage Father." Days rotated between work and school, with games in the evenings and movies on Sundays.
Boys would play games and sometimes get into fights, Sizemore recalled. Habitual fighting was frowned upon, he said, but more often than not, boys were allowed to settle their differences with fisticuffs on "the court."
There were some rules to the fights - boys had to be close in age and size, for example - but once a fight began, it usually was allowed to continue until one boy had given up. Fights were supervised by school officials, and sometimes allowed to go on for hours at a time, he said.
Sizemore discussed the school's hierarchy. A boy came in as a Rookie and earned points for good behavior, working up to Explorer, then Pioneer. As students progressed in rank, they were awarded greater privileges, freedoms and responsibilities. Once Pioneer, boys often became eligible for release, but some stayed and reached higher ranks, Pilot and then, finally, Ace.
"There weren't too many Aces," Sizemore said, adding that if one did not behave he was likely to be demoted to the rank of "Grub."
"My second trip, I entered as a Grub and I left as a Grub," he said.
Normally, one was not dismissed from the school until he had attained the rank of Pioneer. Sizemore said his second trip was a total of 2 years, 6 months, and 19 days.
Sizemore described himself as a "hard case" who disliked authority. He said he grew up without fear because he didn't know any better and could have used some discipline and instruction. He said what he learned instead was cruelty, and that authority was unjust.
"I'll tell you what cruel is: Take an 8-year-old boy, lay him on a bed and strap him until his buttocks are black, black as this shirt I am wearing," Sizemore said.
Whippings were a regular occurrence for Sizemore. He said he was unaware of anyone who had entered the school younger than he - most boys were at least 10-years-old - or took more licks.
Infractions especially frowned upon were cursing and disrespect, Sizemore said, and the man who inflicted the blows most frequently was Robert Hatton, an assistant superintendent at the school. He used a flattened doubled-folded leather paddle with a wooden handle, which was about 30 inches in length.
Sizemore recalled the ridged texture of the raw, split skin, and the array of colors the wounds took as they healed: black to blue, then green, purple and, finally, a soft orange.
Sizemore said other instructors or cottage fathers would administer blows on occasion, but tended to leave marks that were glowing pink or red.
Hatton's punishments were of a different kind.
Sizemore said "one-armed Mr. Tidwell's" punishments were brutal and cruel, but Hatton's went beyond those. Hatton seemed to take pleasure in inflicting pain on the boys, Sizemore said.
"He (Hatton) meant to break me," Sizemore said.
But Sizemore said the beatings were not the worst part.
"The cruelest thing was, he'd keep you in that office, waiting in anticipation for hours," Sizemore said. "And you new what was coming."
One boy was so frightened on the march down he began to panic and scream.
"All I remember is his little jaw trembling, quivering; then he just snapped," Sizemore said.
Sizemore said he was ordered to hold the boy down, who was squirming and would not accept his punishment.
"I told them no," Sizemore said.
Sizemore said he was too ashamed to talk about the school these last 50 years, like a rape victim reluctant to come forward out of unfounded guilt.
He said he was not aware of any sexual abuse at the school, but knew of a boy who was so traumatized after a beating he lost the ability to speak. After a stint in the infirmary, the boy disappeared and never came back, Sizemore said.
Sizemore wondered how no one in the community was aware of the abuse taking place and how it was allowed to continue for so long. He said he has moved on but still bears emotional scarring.
Sizemore admitted catharsis might be difficult 50 years down the road but not impossible.
Asked if he hated the man who beat him so viciously, Sizemore hesitated, then said no.
"I feel sorry for him," Sizemore said. "That might sound strange, but it's true."
Posted by Bob at 5:59 PM
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