Marshelle Berry worked at the Jacksonville Public Library for 35 years and recently wrote a book about her father’s time at the Florida Industrial School for Boys.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The public library is a free resource that offers seemingly endless educational opportunities for everyone in our community. One librarian in particular made it her life’s work to serve the community in more ways than one.
“It has been an honor and a pleasure to open our doors to such a diverse community,” said Marshelle Berry, “we’ve always served everyone from zero to 100 at the library.”
For 35 years Marshelle Berry made a career of serving her community at the Jacksonville Public Library. Originally a clerk at the Brentwood Branch in 1986, Berry evolved to take on larger responsibilities at the library after hearing encouraging words from her boss.
“She would always say ‘Marshelle, when you’re a librarian’ or ‘when you become a librarian Marshelle’,” recalled Berry, “she saw in me the potential and then I began to believe in myself and after I became a librarian I started to realize the potential of leadership and how important it is to pour into others.”
Eventually Berry became the head librarian at the Main Library in downtown Jacksonville. Recently her leadership was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the Florida Library Association. But her latest impact on her community is a book about her father, who is a survivor of the Florida Industrial School for Boys, which would later be known as the Dozier School.
“I started digging and realized that there was so much pain there, so much suffering,” said Berry. She took her father out to lunch to gather the oral history of his time at the school.
Berry’s father, Robert Smith, was first committed to the Florida Industrial School for Boys in 1947 at the age of 12. He did two separate stints at the school, which was more like a prison. Accusations of abuse, torture and even murder of the students by the staff led to the school’s permanent closure in 2011, but painful memories from her father’s youth remained for decades after the school’s doors were closed.
“He remembers a burial, he didn’t say that he saw anyone get killed,” said Berry, “he remembers a young man, who ran away once and the next time they saw him his side was swollen and after that they never saw him again. He remembers a burial, they never said who it was but they never saw that young man again.”
A forensic study of the site revealed nearly 100 students were left in unmarked graves across the property. Berry hopes that her book about her father’s firsthand account of the school serves as a lesson for future generations.
“We need to understand that there are alternatives to sending kids to jail, to prison and we need to look at what’s happening with that,” said Berry.
Marshelle Berry no longer works for the Jacksonville Public Library, but she doesn’t like to say that she’s retired. Rather, she says that she’s evolved to the next stage of her life, a stage in which she hopes to still serve the community.
Berry’s book, It Still Hurts: My Father’s painful account of survival at the Florida Industrial School for Boys is available for purchase as well as the Jacksonville Public Library.
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