By KATE McCARDELL
Floridan Staff Writer
Published: January 8, 2009
On the surface, Darby Tillis and Dick Colon don’t seem to have much in common.
A closer look reveals the two men share a passion for making incarceration a productive experience.
They both speak adamantly against institutional violence. And they both saw it first hand, at the now-infamous Florida Industrial School for Boys.
Tillis grew up in the country, where civil pleasantries like sidewalks didn’t exist. He’s now a public speaker and pastor in Chicago. Colon was a city boy, and now runs a million-dollar electric company in Baltimore.
Although they have never met, heir lives were linked by the place where Tillis saw his first sidewalk.
Tillis ended up at FISB, now the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, at the tender age of 9.
“When I laid my daddy down the day he died, I grabbed a shot gun and went down to the school to blow the principal away,” Tillis recalled. “I got caught in the process and I was jailed. The authorities told my mother to take me back home, but she told them, ‘Put him in reformatory school.’”
He said he took the gun to school because he’d had enough of the principal beating on kids.
Tillis said he spent 11 months at the reform school, and recalls being whipped three times. It was 1953.
“I remember the blood blistering. They’d scab you good. I remember if you put your hand up, they’d start the lashes over again,” said Tillis.
“I’d lay on the bed and hold my hands to the strap while they beat and beat your behind. We’d be so bloody,” said Tillis.
He said he avoided more frequent beatings by “screaming and raising hell through the night” to call attention to himself.
Being a black boy in the South back then, getting beat was nothing new. I heard the white boys called it the ‘White House,’ but on our side we called it the ‘Ice cream House’ ... I’m not sure why,” said Tillis.
The White House is where severe beating allegedly took place at the school. Some former students claim some of their fellow inmates were beaten to death.
Tillis said the time spent at the school was a mix of good and bad. There were amenities there that Tillis did not see at home, like movie nights.
Tillis said he chose to come forward with his experience because of recent media attention surrounding the White House Boys, a group of former residents of the white side of the then-segregated reform school.
The group of men claim torturous abuse occurred in the White House at the school, and the state Department of Juvenile Justice recently acknowledged the abuse with a plaque on the building, which still stands.
“I’m thrilled that these men have spoken out about what happened there. I can imagine that white boys weren’t as used to being beaten as black boys in the South were back then,” Tillis said. “Coming into that must have been even more of a shock for them.”
While Tillis speculates the beatings were probably worse on the black side of the school, he doesn’t recall seeing much abuse other than his own.
“I was just a whippersnapper and kind of oblivious. And my father had just died and I was trying to heal, I was adjusting to the school all at once,” Tillis said.
Dick Colon is a member of the White House Boys. He said he was beaten severely on several occasions during his stay at the reform school.
Colon has also alleged that there could be a number of residents who were beaten to death back in the 1960s and 70s.
In an earlier interview, Colon said he believes he saw a boy’s body tumbling inside a clothes dryer, among other horrendous acts.
From negative to positive
If Colon was beaten so badly when he attended FISB, then why does he return to the school to hand out scholarship money each year?
“Once you go through something like that, you develop a camaraderie with others who go through it,” Colon said. “I tried my hardest while I was there, but it was never good enough. I offered this scholarship for boys who are trying there hardest, even if they aren’t getting great results. They get a fair shot that way and it encourages them not to give up.”
In his days at the school, Colon himself chose not to give up. Despite the nightly beatings, Colon used daylight hours to study hard.
Eventually, Colon found his calling as the owner of an electric company that quickly hit the million-dollar mark.
At his annual scholarship speech, he tells boys who sit where he once sat that he succeeded because he took what fate gave him and made it work.
To this day, Tillis is trying to determine what compelled him to try to shoot his principal, he said.
After his 11 months served at the reform school, Tillis was released and returned to his Marianna home. He said his time at the reform school made his a social outcast in town, so after graduation he moved to Illinois.
In the 1970’s, Tillis was accused of murder and spent more than nine years on death row.
He was among the first death row inmates exonerated in the state of Illinois, and was tried more than five times — the most in U.S. history, he said.
Tillis has been seen walking Chicago’s streets in an orange jump suit, shouting “Abolish the death penalty.”
Since he regained his freedom, Tillis, now a pastor, has spent his life speaking publicly against violence on inmates and against death row.
“It’s not acceptable. Not right. I’m elated to see that somebody stood up to bring this out,” Tillis said of the accusations made about abuse at Dozier. “I hope more attention is paid to these schools and that this type of mess can be eliminated.”
He said violence on troubled inmates isn’t productive.
“What does is accomplish? It just perpetuates more violence. These types of boys and men don’t need to see more negativity. They need someone to show them a different way,” he said. “Young men don’t need cruelty, they need care. You show them nothing but, and that’s all you’ll ever get from them ... And no one’s life should be put up for good. Once you kill an innocent man, you can’t bring him back.
“Look at me. I went to reform school and death row and never should have been at either one.”