Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee: Former ‘White House Boy' confronts his past, recalls horrors

Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 31, 2014
and last updated 2015-04-06 10:34:10-04

Joseph Johnson was 3 when he was sent to a foster home.

When he was 6 his mother was killed.

At 12 he was beaten so badly by his stepmother Florida authorities removed him from her care. A judge sent the child to a place that sounded like a haven — the new Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee.

There the real hell began. For 10 months, three weeks, four days and some 10 hours, the boy lived in fear. He was beaten, tormented, molested. Struck so often and so hard with a 2 ½-foot-long, 5-inch-wide leather paddle that blood soaked his blue jeans. He got no medical help.

Long after he escaped Okeechobee the emotional and mental pain festered. For years he tried washing out the hurt with alcohol. Eventually he coped by confronting the past and with ongoing therapy and medication. Now the 68-year-old Army veteran and retired truck driver is telling his story. He talks of the abuse, of his helplessness and abiding anger at the men who tormented children. The devout Catholic emphasizes his deliverance from evil, a faith that buoyed his survival and the care from Linda, his wife of 51 years.

Johnson, a Knoxville resident since 1979, is a White House Boy. It’s the name for some 500 men who say they were beaten and abused at two Florida-run reform schools in the 1950s and 1960s.

The first school, in the Panhandle town of Marianna, was built in 1900. It was renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys; White House Boys often call it just “Dozier.” The group’s name comes from a white building where Dozier boys say employees beat them. Last year anthropologists exhumed 55 sets of human remains in a Dozier cemetery, two dozen more than listed in school records.

Johnson was sent to a second school some 400 miles south of Marianna. Surrounded by a swamp full of gators and snakes, The Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee opened in 1959. Some Dozier employees, including men named by White House Boys as brutal tormentors, moved to Okeechobee. This summer the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Department began investigating that school’s past. Johnson was among the men authorities interviewed. His memories include seeing two unmarked graves in a school field. Then, he says, no one would have believed a child.

Today Dozier is closed and Okeechobee is a juvenile center run by a private contractor. Its campus is different; many buildings Johnson recalls have been demolished.

“I learned at an early age you can’t forget the past,” he says. “I realized you can’t live in the past. But you cannot forget it. … I am not going to forget. I haven’t been able to.”

Childhood lost

Before he was 12 and sent to “hell on earth,” Joseph Leo Johnson endured a tumultuous childhood marred with loss.

He was 3 in 1949 when his mother Dorothy was hospitalized in a Michigan sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis. Dorothy, husband Clyde and their five children, ages 12 to 6 months, lived in Belleville near Detroit.

With Dorothy away and over Clyde’s protests, Michigan authorities put their children in foster homes. A terrified Joseph ran away, climbed in a church steeple and, exhausted, fell asleep. His brother Bob, 8, found him.

Dorothy came home after two and a half years, cured of TB. The family reunited; Dorothy and Clyde had a sixth child.

Then Dorothy died. Clyde was driving his wife and their 6-month-old son in his new Packard when the car caught fire. As Clyde tried to extinguish the fire Dorothy handed her baby to a woman who stopped to help, then attempted to flag down help when a truck driver hit her. It was 1953; Joseph Johnson was 6.

Within a year he had a stepmother whose strict rules and severe punishments included locking him in a closet. Eventually the family moved to Sarasota, Fla. The move didn’t help.

In Florida Johnson got poor grades so he skipped school. For solace he sneaked into a neighborhood Catholic church. Dorothy Johnson had been Catholic; she’d sometimes taken young Joseph to Mass. Sometimes, in the Florida church, “I would pray to God, ‘Why did you let my mother die?’ ” he says.

When he was 12 and his stepmother again beat him, he ran. Two sheriff’s deputies saw Johnson on a downtown Sarasota street, noticing blood stains on the back of his shirt. They stopped to help. One assured the child, “Whoever did this to you is never going to do it to you again.”

The next day the family was before a judge who told Joseph Johnson he could help. He’d send him to the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee. It sounded wonderful.

“He told me, ‘I can put you in a home where you won’t be beaten,’ ” Johnson recalls. “’You can go to school; you can go horseback riding; you can play ball; you can even learn a trade…. . It’s a marvelous place; it’s brand new.’” Some Okeechobee boys, the judge said, had stolen cars or broken in houses. But most were like Johnson. They needed a home “and somebody that’s going to help them.”

“The judge said, ‘But if you don’t want to go there, I’m not going to send you.’ I’m saying to myself, ‘What kid wouldn’t want to go there? ’ ”

Adjustment center

To this day Johnson thinks the judge believed the glowing Okeechobee report he gave. Johnson says he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Each of the school’s dormitory-like cottages housed 15 to 20 boys ages 10 to 17. The campus included a dining hall, auditorium and dairy farm. School was a windowless room where Johnson completed pages in a workbook twice a week. Other days he worked, first at the dairy barn and then, six days a week, in the kitchen. A baseball field got little use. He never saw anyone bounce a ball on the basketball court. There was no horseback riding.

There was, attached to the auditorium, a small building he knew as “the adjustment center.” There Johnson says he was beaten twice. Each time he was forced face down onto a dirty cot. His hands were cuffed to one end of the bed; his legs chained to the other.

He was first beaten for fighting. He got 20 lashes across his buttocks with the leather paddle. “It seemed like forever. It was at least 10, 15 minutes,” he says. Blood soaked his jeans before he was unchained and ordered to walk to his cottage. His only medical treatment was a wet towel handed him by a friend, a boy named Howard. He learned to pull off his pants carefully and later, as wounds healed, to dress without ripping the scabs.

Some Saturdays Okeechobee employees entered one of the cottages, ordered a cot hauled to its shower room and lined the boys up. One at a time the boys were taken for a shower-room beating. Johnson escaped that torture. But he couldn’t always escape his predators.

Sexual abuse was “rampant.” He rebuked one employee but couldn’t stop the attack of another who stalked the campus at night. That man molested him twice, once wrapping an arm across the boy’s throat. “I knew he would have killed me,” Johnson says. “I was never so scared in my life. But I wasn’t a willing participant; he moved on to somebody else.”

His second beating chained to the adjustment center cot was worse than his first. A snitch wrongly informed guards he and Howard were going to run away. This time he was hit 40 to 50 times, then tossed into solitary confinement. For some 10 days he existed in a small room with a toilet in the corner, a light bulb in the ceiling and a window slot. He got a daily gallon of water and ground-up food in a bowl. He hurt so he didn’t try to sit for three or four days.

Some boys were beaten so badly they couldn’t walk. Half a dozen times Johnson saw guards bring a beaten boy to the cottage, putting the child face down on his cot.

One day at dusk he spotted men dragging a beaten boy from the adjustment center to the rear seat of the school’s 1958 black Ford station wagon. They drove toward the campus tool shed. In a nearby field the next day he saw a freshly dug grave. But the boys were told dairy cows were buried there.

“We always told each other — it was a common comment — ‘If you don’t be careful, where you gonna wind up? Right over there in that ground with so-and-so. You know that’s where they put him. They beat him to death and put him over there,’ ” he says.

Brother’s rescue

Faith helped Johnson survive.

A few months after he got to Okeechobee he found a pocket New Testament lying in a field. The Gideons handed out the books but he’d been working in the kitchen and missed getting one. Nightly he read the book by the dim glow of a hall night light. He was then sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the cottage’s converted mop closet. He’d convinced the cottage supervisor to let him move to the room where he felt safer.

“I was reading about Paul and Silas being thrown in prison for something they didn’t do and God sent an angel to deliver them and turned their chains loose and slung the doors open. I began to ask God to get me out of there, that I did not belong there. I would pray every night, ‘God, if you will get me out, I’ll go to church every Sunday.’ ”

One October day in 1959 he was surprised when called to the school office. His brother Bob, who’d found him 10 years before in that church steeple, had come. Wearing his U.S. Marine blues and holding legal papers, Bob was now Joseph’s guardian. It took some wrangling but Joseph left Okeechobee with Bob.

Fifty miles up the road he forgot his promise to God. When Bob bought a Budweiser six-pack 13-year-old Joseph opened a can. “From that day on I started drinking. I was always trying to forget Okeechobee,” he says.

He lived his teen years afraid Florida authorities would drag him back. For a few months he felt safe living with Bob at Cherry Point, N.C. Then the military shipped Bob overseas. Homeless, Joseph began hitchhiking to California to stay with an older sister. He never made it.

By January 1960 the almost 14-year-old was penniless, hungry and cold in New Orleans. He got work unloading trucks at the docks. At night he slept in the Cathedral Basicilia St. Louis King of France, stretching on a bench near a comforting statue of the Virgin Mary. One day he woke to see a priest standing beside his bench. With help from the priest and others, he rented a room, found employment, enrolled in school and attended church.

“I felt God delivered me from Okeechobee and I let him down but he gave me another chance,” he says. “Every Sunday I was in church. I was afraid if I broke my promise again I would wind up back in Okeechobee.”

Yet he lived a lie those three years in New Orleans. He pretended to be his brother Bob. Only the priest knew the truth. A tall, lanky 14-year-old in March 1960, he looked older than his age. He could use Bob’s identification; his brother’s wallet was mixed with his own belongings. The deception gave him some security Okeechobee wouldn’t find him.

“I always thought as a kid somehow they could get me back. … And I would never get out of that place.”

Spiritual deliverance

For years Johnson tried burying Okeechobee in anger and alcohol. He suffered from depression. “I wanted to go back there a lot of times and just kill every one of them.”

He confided in Linda shortly after they married in 1963. For more than 40 years she was his only counselor and confidant. He kept silent “because who would believe people would do this to children?”

Okeechobee first broke Johnson’s nerves in 1965; what happened there was the deepest layer under newer pain. He joined the Army the fall after he married Linda, and he blamed himself for a 1964 military accident that badly injured — and he believed for years killed — his sergeant. Then in 1965 the Johnsons’ infant son died days after his premature birth. “Everything cracked,” Johnson says. “It just kept mounting until all the dominoes fell down.” His anguish would hospitalize him six times through 1990.

Years after he left Okeechobee, he tried to repay God for his deliverance. In 1990 he began a church music ministry that’d last 22 years. He’d learned to play guitar in New Orleans. Music was his talent “to give back to God. I wanted to show Him I not only remembered what He had done for me but I wanted to give Him all I had.”

Finally, 37 years after he left Okeechobee, he returned. In 1996 he and Linda went with friends — one now a Catholic priest — to confront the past. The state no longer ran the school. Not only did the then-superintendent confirm his memories of abuse, say Joseph and Linda Johnson, he opened a desk drawer to show the cuffs, chains and paddle used on Johnson and others. Though Johnson at first had to be coaxed from the car, the trip helped him. “He was really putting it behind him,” Linda Johnson says.

The anguish returned when he saw a 2012 news broadcast about abuse allegations at Dozier. That’s when he became part of the White House Boys. “We are all telling the same story,” he says. “None of us could dream up a lie like that and tell the same lie over and over.”

His nightmares still haunt him. In one he hears a school employee with a wooden leg thump down a hall. In another he’s that limp, perhaps dead, boy being dragged into the school’s black Ford.

While he’s forgiven the stepmother whose beating sent him there he cannot forgive the men who tormented him at Okeechobee. He would like to receive one day an official apology signed by Florida’s governor. Today, as a White House Boy, Johnson says he speaks for the men who still cannot and the boys who never will. “This is what these people did to us. We were children; we didn’t deserve this.”

“My spiritual relationship with God, my church, my wife and therapy really helped pull me out. Because I struggled with this so long. I want people to see how God works through us and helps us deal with these types of things. God delivered me from there.”