Kentwood, LA (BlackNews.com) — Antoinette Harrell is a genealogist, activist, and peonage detective who spent decades tracking down slavery in the deep south. The peonage research of Harrell led her to investigate peonage at the Arthur G. Dozier Reform School in Marianna, Florida – also called the Florida Industrial School for Boys. Her research led her to dig deep into Dozier files at the Tallahassee State Archives in the sunshine state of Florida in search of signs of peonage practices on the campus. The school opened its doors in 1900 and closed the doors in 2011 after operating for 111 years. More than 500 former students have alleged they were brutally beaten, sexually abused, as well as mentally abused by Dozier’s staff. Some even alleged that they were used as modern day slaves, working to grow crops, raise livestock and cut timber.
Harrell focused her research on child labor and wanted to follow the money trails. Boys as young as seven years old worked at Dozier’s child labor camp. They grew everything from sweet potatoes, butter beans, string beans, turnips, okra and other agricultural produce. They raised and slaughtered livestock for sale. Each division made its own money and was headed by school staff. What happened to the money? Who was buying the produce? A general farm produce report on October 1958 from the poultry, dairy, garden and swine division documented the money that was made from each division. A total of $10,980.36 was made that quarter. The reports were made quarterly each year.
A sale report of proceeds items for the period ending March 31, 1966 showed that for that year, Dozier made $118,160 in swine and $156,108 in beef sales. Each item of produce and livestock was itemized. Harrell interviewed Johnny Lee Gaddy who was 11-years old in 1957 when he was sent to Arthur G. Dozier Reform School for skipping school because he had a speech impediment and was tired of the other students in his class teasing him. He was picked up by a police officer and placed in a jail cell for one night. The next morning Gaddy was sent directly to Dozier without appearing before a juvenile court.
Gaddy informed Harrell of the hard work he did at Dozier. He said he cut down timber in the swamps; he worked in the fields planting and harvesting the produce. Harrell asked Gaddy if he knew where the produce was going? “I saw the trucks coming and going,” said Gaddy. “But I couldn’t tell you where they were taking the produce or meat. You better not asked any questions. If you want to live and didn’t want to get a bad beating for questioning the overseers, you better keep your mouth shut.”
The campus was segregated up until the late 60’s.
Over the years, Harrell has helped the African-American male victims to organize a group called “Black Boys at Dozier” and she helped them to bring their plight of abuse and modern day slavery to the eyes of the public. She also helped them gain national and international attention for their stories. She even took the men back to the Dozier campus for a press conference. It was the first time that the men set foot back on the campus in over 50 years.
Harrell is always on the hunt for new stories of slavery and peonage that have been swept under the rug in America. She has spent hundreds of hours researching private collections and public documents from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on peonage. She had climbed in dark and dusty courthouse attics to search for any evidence that pointed to peonage practices. Sometimes driving late night hours on back dusty roads that seem never ending, looking for modern day plantations, and in search of people live in peonage.
A resolution acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to Dozier and Okeechobee was cruel, unjust and “a violation of fundamental human decency.” Within the first 13 years of Dozier School’s operation, six states led investigations were conducted in response to reports of children being chained to walls in iron, severely beaten, and used for child labor.
Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) carried the Senate resolution, apologizing to the men who say they endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at Dozier Reform School and Okeechobee in the state of Florida. Senate Resolution 1440 recognized the widespread abuse. “The bill expressed regret for this shameful part of our history, sincerely apologizes on behalf of the legislature, and declares a commitment to make sure that these atrocities and tragedies never occur again.”