After running away from an abusive mother in the 1950s, the courts deemed Robert Straley an "incorrigible youth" and sent him to live at the Florida School for Boys in picturesque Marianna, near the Georgia border. Straley couldn't imagine the horror he'd endure: regular beatings and torture at the hands of guards, whom others at the school witnessed raping and possibly even murdering.
Those crimes went unmentioned for fifty years, until Straley hooked up with documentary journalist Michael O'McCarthy -- another survivor of the school -- and made national headlines by uncovering the abuses. Now the pair have a new book out about the school. Straley talks with Riptide after the jump.
Straley, a successful businessman in Tampa, will speak about his new book, "The Boys of the Dark" -- co-written with O'McCarthy and Pulitzer Prize-winner Robin Gaby Fisher -- at Books and Books tonight at 8 p.m.
New Times: How did this project start?
Straley: It started almost by itself. One morning, I saw a picture of Martin Anderson (a boy abused a discipline camp), and something about his picture disturbed me. There was a picture where they had him on ground with guards standing on him, and I got really emotional.
A week later, a girl who worked for me called and we were talking about his case. I blurted out that I was in a place like that where they whipped you and they probably killed boys. I said it was 50 years ago. The next day she googled the Florida School for Boys and found a website about abuses there. I looked at it and there was a picture of the White House, where we were abused. I hadn't seen that in decades except in nightmares.
How did you hook up with Michael O'McCarthy, the filmmaker?
We started researching through the archives and we came up with an amazing amount of abuse, documented abuse. I found a total of 24 cases that are really relevant, which are all at my website, whitehouseboys.com.
So we started by sending a letter out to some newspapers and we got a few hits. Everyone said, 'It's a good story, and it would have been a big story then, but its 50 years old now.' We were very disappointed. Then by accident, I'd seen Michael O'McCarthy's work on Rosewood (a small Florida town where he documented crimes against black residents.) I fired him off a letter.
He called and said he'd been a boy there, too, and run away and gotten a 100-lash beating. It was very painful and he never got over it.
And with Michael on board, the press finally jumped on the story?
That's right. We got Carol Marbin Miller on board at the Herald, and she started her own investigation. This was in October, and it wasn't three days later when Michael said, 'You have to drive to Miami right away and be in video with Carol Miller.' So we did a video report with her, and then, not even a week later, he said we're all going up to Mariana to go into the White House. I said, 'We're going inside there?'
The Herald had done a big report, so they staged this ceremony there for us. They couldn't say it never happened, clearly, yet they still didn't want to admit more happened than it did. They tried to limit the press.
We got up there and there was a little plaque on the wall saying something about the White House being officially sealed. Then they showed us this plot with a bunch of white crosses, for boys who had died there. We were all shocked.
A reporter from the AP was there, unbeknownst to the planners, and the story went nationwide the next day, to every national newspaper and international newspaper in Wales, India, everywhere.
When did you decide to seek an official apology and action?
Right after then, Michael and I decided to press the governor to launch inquiry to see who was buried in those graves. He had the FDLE do the investigation. Roger and I were besieged by calls, from nine to midnight talking to people who had been there. They were policemen, Navy men, Army men, and 90 percent of them had never told a soul about this place. A lot of them broke down on the phone talking to us. Some people in military said they'd rather do another year in Vietnam than go back to the White House. I listened for two months, and it almost drove me nuts.
And the state's report didn't do much to alleviate things for you?
Their report came out and it was the thinnest whitewash I've ever seen. They did nothing to dig up anything. They were never going to dig anything up. They explained it all away on paper as far as the graves went. They determined 81 boys had probably died there, but just 31 were in the cemetery. They couldn't find the other 50, so what happened to them? It was a very disappointing report.
So why did you decide to write this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?
What I hope the book does, first is just to further explain what happened there. We have gotten letters from so many brothers, sisters, relatives and so on saying, 'Now I know why dad beat us,' or 'We understand why he never hugged us.' I also hope something new will happen at the state level. They can make sure there are no more restraints used at youth facilities, which is still allowed.
I'd also like to see the men get some kind of reparations, even if its just a small one. I'd like them to finish their promise, also. They promised to tear the White House down. Then the day after the news broke, they stated it was neither an apology nor an admission of guilt. Then what was it?
What was it like working on this with Robin Gaby Fisher, the Pulitzer winner?
She was given I think it was nine weeks to write this. That's a very short time. So Michael and I both wrote what she asked of us: Your family life, your time in Marianna, after Marianna what happened to you. I wrote maybe 30,000 words. I'm long winded.
She's such an excellent writer and was an investigative reporter herself. She worked day and night on that book. She made five trips by plane to Florida for interviews.
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Did it help you cope with your memories of the school to write this book?
It did help. I was left with a rage problem. This is typical in 60 or 70 percent of the men. When you're whipped and beaten, you feel shame and cowardice that you didn't fight back and that then turns to rage. That led me to risk my life many times doing foolish things to prove to myself that I wasn't a coward. Those days are over for me now, I think. But the anger is still there.
Michael O'McCarthy died earlier this year of a heart attack. How much does it mean to you to carry on the fight he cared so much about?
If we hadn't found Michael, we may not have gotten the story to anyone else. Finding him was like the million to one shot. What a shame he isn't here, now, to see this book out. He spoke and wrote in political language and journalism language so much better than I do. But I'm here still plugging away.