Many of the boys sent to the Dozier School for Boys were black. Caught up in Florida’s Jim Crow justice system of the time.
Investigators have been given permission to exhume remains found at the notorious Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which closed in 2011 following pupils’ revelations of widespread physical and sexual abuse.
Governor Rick Scott and the rest of Florida’s cabinet voted unanimously on Tuesday to allow dozens of unmarked graves found in woods near the school to be opened up. The decision comes after a team of researchers found evidence of almost 100 deaths at the institution.
“We are not exactly sure what happened there, but we know it was not good,” Florida attorney general Pam Bondi said during Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s something we as Floridians can’t ignore.”
The University of South Florida was commissioned to look into deaths at the Dozier School, in the panhandle city of Marianna after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced the presence of 31 grave sites in 2010.
A “funeral” for one of the black inmates
A team of anthropologists and archaeologists found that 45 people had been buried on school grounds between 1914 and 1952, with 31 bodies sent elsewhere for burial. There were 22 more cases in which no burial site was listed.
Of the 98 deaths they confirmed, two were adult staff members and the rest children aged from six to 18.
Many of the graves were unmarked and had been lost in the woods under brush and trees.
Teams of searchers recovered human bones from the sands of Florida Panhandle woodlands on Saturday in a “boot hill” graveyard where juveniles who disappeared from a notorious reform school more than a half-century ago are believed to have been secretly buried.
“We have found evidence of burial hardware – hinges on coffins,” said Dr. Christian Wells, an anthropologist from the University of South Florida, in a briefing about a mile from the closed excavation site near the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
“There appear to be a few pieces associated with burial shrouds, and there are pins consistent with the 1920s and 1930s, – based on the style of the pins – and they appear to be brass,” he said.
Some “large-bone fragments” were found on the first day of digging, Wells said. They were human bones, he added, but it was impossible to know if they came from any of the teenaged boys who were housed at Dozier during its infamous 111-year existence. The school was closed in mid-2011.
The notorious Whitehouse where boys were taken to be systematically beaten and sexually abused by school staff.
The bones will be examined in laboratories at the University of South Florida and the University of North Texas, as part of a program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and state of Florida.
After forensic investigators, using ground-piercing radar and old public records, detected 31 spots showing possible human remains, researchers planted crude white crosses on a nearby hillside to commemorate the unaccounted-for boys.
Some former residents of Dozier, now in their 60s and 70s, have told of brutal beatings and boys – mostly black juveniles – disappearing without explanation more than 50 years ago. Blood relatives of some of the boys have given DNA samples, to be matched against evidence taken from the skeletal remains.
Earlier on Saturday, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist from USF, met with some family members and survivors.
“We’re approaching it much like you would an archeological excavation,” Kimmerle said. “It’s all done carefully and by hand.”
‘Never had a chance’
Tananarive Due, who came to the dig with some family members, said her great-uncle, Robert Stephens, died at the school in 1937.
“The story was … he tried to run away at one point,” she said. “The official cause of death was a stabbing by another inmate, that’s what it was listed as. But with so many of these boys, who knows how they died? Their families never had a chance to say ‘good-bye’ to their loved ones.”
Johnny Lee Gaddy, 67, said he was locked up from 1957 to 1961 for truancy. He said he was severely beaten, but in his teens became a good farm worker, hoping to get released.
Gaddy said he had heard of teens disappearing without explanation.
“I know some they said went home, but they hadn’t been here long enough to go home,” Gaddy said. “They said some others ran away or were transferred to other places. We never saw any bodies or funerals.”
According to Florida State records, all boys which died at the Dozier School were buried in the same Cemetery. In reality, black children who were killed by the guards or died by accident were buried in unmarked graves on other parts of the property.
John Due, father of Tananarive, said descendants and civil-rights activists who pressed the state for disclosure of what happened to the young men ran into rigid resistance from authorities for decades.
“People didn’t want to talk about it, and we found that particularly among black families,” he said. “That’s what racism does. It beats you down and you think you don’t matter, so you won’t speak up.”
The forensic teams will work through Tuesday. Remains that can be identified will be re-interred at family plots and any unidentified remains will be numbered and buried – with records kept for later return to families, if any come forward.