This week’s Longreads Member Pick is by David Kushner, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone whose work has been featured on Longreads often in the past. He has just published The Bones of Marianna, a new story from The Atavist, and we’re thrilled to give the ebook to Longreads Members.
Almost everyone who hears the shocking story of the Dozier School for Boys, one of the country’s oldest and largest reform schools, and a model for the nation, asks the same question: how could this happen? How could the Florida government allow generations of young wards to be whipped, shackled, forced into hard labor, and possibly worse for over 100 years? Allegations of abuse dogged the school through its closing two years ago, and continue today, with troubling questions and answers still remaining.
In The Bones of Marianna, which I spent the past year reporting, I tell the story of two determined crusaders who pushed this dark past into light. Jerry Cooper, a star of Dozier’s football team, haunted by the memory of a teammate he accused the school of killing, spends years quarterbacking the fight to expose the truth, while a leading forensic anthropologist, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, digs up grim secrets in the school’s unmarked graveyard. The Prologue, excerpted here in Longreads, draws from Cooper’s recollection of a little white building that he, and hundreds of boys who passed through Dozier, will never forget.
Thanks to Kushner and The Atavist for sharing this story with Longreads Members. Below is the opening chapter. You can also purchase the full ebook on Amazon.
It didn’t take much to get sent to the White House. Smoking. Cussing. Taking an extra pat of butter at lunch. Or, as Jerry Cooper learned late one spring night in 1961, refusing to play football.
The White House was a small building near the cafeteria at the Florida School for Boys, where 15-year-old Cooper had arrived earlier that year. The school was the oldest reformatory in Florida, spread across 1,400 acres of rolling farmland in Marianna, a town of 7,150, an hour from the state capital in Tallahassee. Like most schools in the South, it treated football like religion. But the reform school’s Yellow Jackets had languished of late, and acting superintendent David Walters—who took such pride in the team that he kept its few trophies in his office—wanted Cooper to lead them to victory again.
Cooper was tall, lean, and amiable, the star quarterback at his high school in suburban Orlando before his life veered off course. When Walters, a stocky, crew-cut middle-aged man, summoned Cooper to his office a few months after his arrival, he didn’t ask if he’d play quarterback for the Yellow Jackets. He told him to.
But Cooper didn’t want to suit up. With his good behavior and dutiful work as a teacher’s aide, he had earned an early release from the school and would be going home in a few months. He didn’t want a commitment to the football team to keep him around through the fall. He obligingly attended practices with the other boys, struggling through the Florida heat in thick, ratty pads every afternoon, but he refused to sign up for the coming season.
Then, one night, he was awakened by a hand gripping his neck. Two guards—one larger than him, one smaller—dragged him barefoot from his cottage. They wouldn’t say where they were taking him as they threw him into the back of an old blue Ford. They drove along the rocky dirt roads across campus until they reached a little white building. Cooper had never been sent to the White House before, but he had heard the stories of kids being taken there to be whipped—or worse.
As the guards shoved Cooper through the door, the stench of bodily fluids overwhelmed him. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling of the bare concrete room, illuminating three husky men: Walters, school disciplinarian R. W. Hatton, and a supervisor, Troy Tidwell, whom the boys nicknamed the One-Armed Bandit. As a child, Tidwell had leaned on the muzzle of a shotgun and blown off his left arm. His remaining arm possessed a fearsome strength, and he was known to the boys as the strongest whipmaster of the White House.
“What do you know about a runner?” Walters asked Cooper, referring to a boy who had run away from the school earlier that night.
“I don’t have a fucking clue,” Cooper replied.
Walters lunged for him, and Cooper’s football instincts took over. The boy jammed his shoulder into the superintendent, taking Tidwell down with him. But the men recovered, and Tidwell’s hand closed around Cooper’s neck, hurling him against the wall. Tidwell smashed his heel down on Cooper, shattering the ball of his foot. When Cooper grabbed his foot in agony, he caught a fist to the mouth, which knocked loose his front teeth.
The men threw Cooper facedown on an army cot and tied his legs down. Cooper heard Tidwell’s whip snap against the ceiling and an instant later felt it sear his skin. One burning lash followed another, and Cooper, who never considered himself a coward, begged for mercy. “Jesus, God help me!” he cried. “Mother!” Then he passed out from the pain.
That night in his cottage, Cooper nursed his broken foot. The wounds from the whip were still so raw that the blood soaked through the back of his nightshirt. A boy who had been waiting his turn in the White House during Cooper’s beating later told him he had counted 135 licks in all. The supervisors had told Cooper he was being punished for not helping them find the runaway, but Cooper surmised the real reason for the whipping: They wanted him on the football team, even if they had to beat him into compliance (though they probably hadn’t planned on breaking his foot). Now, on account of his alleged insubordination, he wouldn’t be released from the school anytime soon—certainly not before the end of the football season.
Lying on his bed, Cooper wondered how he would survive the months that stretched before him. The White House had changed him. He vowed to bring the men who had broken him to justice, no matter how long it took.
But first he had to play ball.
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