A century-old Florida state school for troubled boys, Dozier Reform School, is now the site of a forensic investigation after more than 50 bodies were discovered, some in unmarked graves, next to a garbage dump on the side of campus where the African-American students were housed.
The University of South Florida anthropologists conducting the investigation this weekend worked for months to identify more unmarked graves and then had to appeal directly to Governor Rick Scott (R) to exhume the bodies they found, after his Secretary of State refused permission for the dig. Head anthropologist Erin Kimmerle told CNN, “These are children who came here and died, for one reason or another, and have just been lost in the woods.” She is hoping to be able to match the DNA of some of the recovered remains to families who have been waiting for answers, and to determine some of the causes of the deaths of the bodies she finds. “When there’s no knowledge and no information, then people will speculate and rumors will persist or questions remain,” she added.
Christian Wells of the University of South Florida told Al Jazeera, “There is a legal obligation of the State of Florida to return those remains to their families for proper burial. And some have argued there’s also a moral obligation that the state has to do this.”
One person who expects her relative’s remains to be unearthed and finally returned for burial is Tananarive Due, whose great-uncle Robert Stephens was reportedly stabbed by another child at the facility in 1937 but whose remains were never returned to his family. She hopes to clear up the circumstances of his death and bury him in a family plot. Another is Ovell Smith Krell, whose brother Owen Smith ran away from home at 14 and was sent to the facility after being caught with a stolen car. Officials told Smith’s parents that he died of pneumonia after his second escape attempt and was buried on the facility’s grounds, but a fellow inmate told them that Owen was shot by school officials during the attempt and buried to hide it.
Students like Richard Huntley, who was sent to the school in the late fifties, told Al Jazeera that he and his fellow inmate-students were forced to do farm work under dangerous conditions under threats of worse. “This, to me, is a form of slavery,” he said, “because they, damn it, beat you to what they wanted you to be.”
Boys who didn’t comply with orders were sent to “The White House,” which Huntley likened to a “torture chamber.” He said, “If you didn’t know how to pray [before being sent to The White House], you learned pretty fast.”
Surviving students like Huntley formed an organization called The White House Boys, to press for justice for themselves and closure for the families of the boys who died at the institution. One group leader, Robert Straley, told the Associated Press, “At some point they are going to find more bodies, I’m dead certain of that. There has to be a white graveyard on the white side.” He suspects there are at least 100 undiscovered sets of remains on the site.
An earlier investigation by the Florida spurred by the White House boys that began in 2008 was closed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2010 despite being unable to account for all the bodies in the cemetery or the boys reported missing from the school. Police most recently told Al Jazeera that there was no way to sustain a criminal investigation since all but one of the school’s former employees was dead and the remaining employee would be unable to testify.
Watch video of the case by Al Jazeera America, below:
Watch more video, courtesy of WFTV Orlando, below:
Watch another account, courtesy of WEAR in Pensacola: