TAMPA — For the state to recognize, acknowledge, and perhaps even compensate victims of abuse at a notorious Panhandle boys’ home, advocates say they’ll have to frame the campaign as another Rosewood — the town burned to the ground in a fatal 1923 racist melee.
They've picked up some added muscle to get it done — former Gov. Bob Martinez, now a policy analyst with the Holland & Knight law firm. Martinez has taken up the cause and will advocate in Tallahassee for the former boys home residents known as the “White House Boys.”
“I'm familiar with the issues. I knew it was a troubled site historically,” Martinez said Friday.
In fact, the former governor once took action against administrators at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, dismissing some of the center's administrators during his tenure as governor from 1987-1991.
One of his predecessors, Gov. Claude Kirk, who served from 1967-1971, paid a visit to the school and concluded that if parents knew the circumstances their children were in they would “be up there with rifles.”
Martinez will help lawyers from the Masterson Law Group navigate the state Capitol, where their best hopes lie to win formal recognition of atrocities described by former wards of the school.
Tom Masterson says he is representing some 500 men who were ordered to the school as boys, many to suffer cruel abuse and beatings in a cottage known as the White House.
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The White House Boys tried and failed in the courts, with a civil suit in 2009 dismissed because of statutes of limitations. They've tried the Legislature through its claims bill process but were rebuffed because such actions typically require a court judgment and award.
Masterson said Friday the best strategy might be to mimic the path taken by advocates for victims of the Rosewood massacre.
In that case, 70 years after a white mob killed four black men and burned the black hamlet near Cedar Key to the ground, lawmakers submitted legislation to compensate victims. Then-speaker Bolly “Bo” Johnson, a Democrat from Milton, convened an academic research team made up of professors from the state's major universities to investigate Rosewood and report its findings to the Legislature.
A special master reviewed the evidence and concluded that it was “clear that government officials were responsible for some of the damages sustained by the claimants,” and recommended a bill favorably to the Legislature.
In their next session, in 1994, lawmakers approved $2.1 million in reparations for those displaced and survivors.
Following the Rosewood road map “to me, would be the logical thing to do at this stage,” Martinez said.
In order to accomplish that, the White House Boys will have to have some champions in Tallahassee. That's where Martinez and his years of influence come in.
In addition to his role as former governor, he was Tampa's mayor from 1979 to 1986. He held a Cabinet-level office as the nation's second drug czar under President George H.W. Bush.
The White House Boys welcomed the news that Martinez was on board.
“This is a good thing. He's a man with a lot of power. I'm very glad that he has taken up our cause,” said Robert Staley of Clearwater, a Dozier ward from 1963 to 1964. “Everybody who walked through that door should get something. I think they should get something that shows them the state of Florida cares enough to make them feel better, and give them an apology, and maybe help them out of a financial situation that they're in. A lot of people are in a bad way.”
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Masterson said many of those who spent time at Dozier have physical disabilities relating to their treatment and show signs of post-traumatic stress, anger, and depression. Many have been unable to maintain friendships and relationships.
The lawyer isn't talking about financial terms yet. A class of 500 plaintiffs dwarfs the 10 or so that survived the Rosewood massacre and split the reparations, not counting families who were run out of town and those who received college scholarships.
“If nothing happens financially, if they just acknowledge it — and I'd like to see them do something to memorialize it — it would be a step in the right direction,” Masterson said.
Meanwhile, researchers from the University of South Florida continue to examine the site.
Anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle and a team of USF professors and graduate students turned their attention to Dozier after the allegations of the White House Boys caught the ear of then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008. Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the complaints of abuse and the status of a cemetery on the school grounds.
FDLE concluded there was no evidence of foul play and 31 graves on the premises were legitimate and documented.
Kimmerle's group, conducting much more advanced research, has since found 55 graves at the site. [email protected]