The Florida reform institution known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was by no stretch of the imagination a school. It was a labor camp for the state, staffed by underage boys, many of whom were sent there for minor infractions. Set on the grounds was a small building called the White House, which was nothing less than a torture chamber. And then there were the unmarked graves.
Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his heartbreaking 2019 novel The Nickel Boys, which was closely based on reporting done about the real-life Dozier School. The journalist on whose work Whitehead based his novel spoke to Siena’s First-Year Seminar students on September 16 about the hard work of tracking down the long-hidden truth about Dozier.
Ben Montgomery reported on Dozier in 2009 for The St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times), the result of 10 years of painstaking research. His first article “For Their Own Good” detailed the horrific abuse suffered by the boys – some as young as five – who did time at the facility in Marianna. The now-closed school operated for more than 100 years, and survivors often went on to live lives destroyed by substance abuse, prison time and fractured relationships.
“The state didn’t know what to do with these juveniles,” he explained to his Siena audience of 600 gathered in the MAC. “Yes, some had committed crimes. But most were caught trying to run away from unhappy homes, or skipping school, or smoking cigarettes. They were supposed to learn a trade, but the state realized in the boys they had access to free labor, which they could use for their benefit. ‘Too few kids make the crops come in slow’ was the attitude.”
Montgomery shared a trigger warning with his audience, as his research on Dozier revealed horrific beatings, some of which led to death. For offenses as small as dropping food in the cafeteria, or showing kindness to a fellow student, boys were taken to the “White House” to be beaten with a leather strap. If they cried out, the beating started all over again. An industrial fan masked the sounds of the sadistic punishment being meted out.
Once Montgomery’s articles were published, he said his phone started ringing with calls from men who had been at Dozier and wanted to share their personal stories.
Asavari Gowda ’25 said both Whitehead’s novel and Montgomery’s journalism made an indelible impression.
“It was hard to wrap my head around the absolute cruelty the boys at Dozier had to endure,” said Gowda. “I'd often find myself rereading sentences in The Nickel Boys just to be able to process the scene that had just unfolded. Ben Montgomery showed us the faces and stories of the men who were once the boys at the Dozier School and his detailed accounts of what he learned about the school's crimes reminded me that it is so important for all of us to acknowledge and learn from these parts of our history so that we can shape a better future.”
Gowda mentioned specifically a story Montgomery shared of a man who held on to a white pebble he first found as a boy when he was in Dozier’s White House.
“He focused on this pebble to drown out the screams of another boy who was being beaten, and he kept it with him for the rest of his life.”
Whitehead’s novel, set in the early 1960s, follows the fictional Elwood Curtis, whose soul and body are damaged by his years at the school. In the book the school is called the Nickel Academy, ostensibly named after its founder, but students there said it was because their lives “weren’t worth five cents.”
Jaimie Abraham ‘25 noted, “During Ben Montgomery's talk, he said things can change with words. The Nickel Boys makes me believe that a story can change your perspective on history. I could not believe how long the Dozier school lasted and how no one took action against the abuse there. It is a part of history that happened and was unknown to the public for a long time.”
Ifrah Mohammed ’23 attended an informal luncheon presentation by Montgomery before his lecture. Mohammed is a communications/journalism major who was interested in hearing directly from a reporter whose work has been so impactful. She asked him about his choice of writing topics, and whether he has ever faced any backlash or disagreement from family or friends for writing about them.
“My question made him pause and think for a minute,” she said. “He said the pure shock of the incidents that have occurred inspired his passion to research them - sometimes even obsessively - and he didn't face any backlash from friends and family, ever. He did face disagreements from those who were in power and in charge of the narrative, those who didn't want his writing to change the version of history that we are all already familiar with.”
Mohammed said that answer has inspired her to do research of her own: she hopes to explore the disparities between Niskayuna High School and Schenectady High School in New York’s Capital Region regarding allocation of resources and how it has impacted students.
Daniella Gerbasi ’25 also attended the luncheon – as an English major and a writer she wanted to learn about Montgomery’s writing process.
“He was great – it was a very casual, informal discussion. I asked him how he dealt with writer’s block, and he told me about the ‘Butt in the Seat’ method, where you simply have to make a mental commitment to sit down and write. Taking a long walk beforehand helps, too, and it’s easy to do that now that I’m on a college campus.”
Gerbasi noted the emotional impact of Whitehead’s novel.
“I was very intrigued with the character of Elwood and his moral standards. The ending really got to me. I was reading it on the beach on vacation, and I was just sitting there crying. I got very attached emotionally to what was happening in the book.”
The Nickel Boys is a gut-wrenching read for many reasons, and its selection as the FYS book was not made lightly. Michelle Liptak, Ph.D., and Britt Haas, Ph.D. are co-directors of FYS, and said summer reading books are selected by a “democratic process,” with a committee of more than 20 faculty members proposing and voting on possible titles.
“We strongly believe that the summer reading should be engaging and should resonate with students for years to come,” said Liptak.
Haas said with the Black Lives Mater movement and the national reckoning on race, The Nickel Boys was especially relevant this year.
“We’ve had very positive feedback about the novel so far,” she said. “It’s very easy for the students to get into discussions; in fact, they can’t stop talking about it.”
Liptak and Haas agreed that the story of the Dozier School/Nickel Academy is powerful in different ways as fiction, and as journalism.
“Fiction can mirror real problems in our society, and we hope it can renew conversations about how they can be addressed,” said Liptak.
Haas added that some students were not encouraged in high school to talk about issues such as racism and social justice, but at Siena “they are already embracing these conversations.”
“Yes, this book is difficult, but that’s exactly why we need to read it,” she said.
Siena students will be referencing The Nickel Boys throughout their freshman year. What are the FYS co-directors hoping will be their takeaway?
“I hope they are inspired with a sense of purpose, of action, to make this a more equitable and inclusive world,” sad Liptak.
Haas wants students to ask why Whitehead created these characters.
“Authors have a purpose when they write,” she said. “With The Nickel Boys, that purpose may very well be to think about what you can do for justice.”