The Florida authorities called the Dozier School for Boys a reformatory, a home for orphans or wayward boys who needed a little guidance. But the boys sent to the school called it Hell.
The Dozier School was located in the tiny town of Marianna, West of Tallahassee and thirty minutes or so from the Georgia line. It opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School, and despite years of reports of serious abuse and mistreatment, it remained open for over 100 years. At least 98 people died there over the years, two staff members and 96 boys aged six to 18. Men who were once Dozier residents recounted brutal beatings they received in the White House, a small outbuilding on the school grounds whose walls remain spattered with what looks like blood. More than one survivor has called the building "a torture chamber."
A group of men who were sent to the school in the 1950s and '60s have banded together to tell their stories: they call themselves the White House Boys. The Tampa Bay Times has done the best coverage of the Dozier School, including an investigation in 2009 that uncovered squalid conditions, staff neglect and mistreatment from 1900 to the present day, depicting the school, as they put it, as "a place of abuse and neglect, of falsified records, bloody noses and broken bones." (Meanwhile, some Marianna residents have called all the stories on the school "one-sided" and complained that the coverage has made the town look bad.)
In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the abuse claims and said they were unable to substantiate them. But three years after Dozier finally closed its doors, an anthropological team has been working to uncover the schools' dead and its many secrets. What they've found since beginning work in January 2012 with federal funding casts significant doubt on the state's claims.
Dr. Erin Kimmerle is a forensic anthropologist, an associate professor at the University of South Florida and a leader of the team excavating Dozier. (Before coming to USF, she worked as the Chief Anthropologist at the Hague, analyzing mass graves in Bosnia and Croatia.) Along with two colleagues (Antoinette Jackson and Christian Wells) and a crew of graduate students, Kimmerle has been excavating Boot Hill, the burial ground at Dozier, as well as the surrounding area and trying, through DNA testing, to return the boys' remains to their families for a proper burial.
In January of 2014, the team exhumed 55 bodies—five more than they expected to find, 24 more than official records said were buried there. There are still many questions: how many boys lie buried under the Dozier grounds, their bodies slowly entwining with the roots of the mulberry trees around them? How did they die? And who do we hold accountable for the 100 years of suffering the Dozier school inflicted?
Last week I spoke on the phone with Dr. Kimmerle about her work at Dozier. The state says she and her team have until August 5 of this year to continue searching the school grounds.
When did you start searching the Dozier school grounds? What were you looking for?
The proposals started in 2011, and the field work began in January of 2012. There were marked crosses [in a graveyard on the school grounds]. We started there, and initially our goal wasn't to excavate, it was just to document this burial ground. We didn't think the crosses would match up to graves, because the staff said they put them in later to commemorate it. But we wanted to see how many burials we could find, the outline, was it the right place. Who were these kids who died there? What were their stories?
How many people are involved in the project?
There are five graduate students pretty consistently involved. I have two colleagues, Christian Wells and Antoinette Jackson. But over the course of the excavation, we brought in volunteers from the agencies that we partner with. We've had 55 different people volunteer with the excavation. A tremendous asset to this whole endeavor has been the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, here in Tampa. Marianna isn't their jurisdiction. But the sheriff, David Gee, has given us a lot of support, and detectives and crime scene people have been working on-site with us and helping to locate the families.
You had to work pretty hard to get the state to give you access to anything other than Boot Hill, the cemetery, right? Even though it became clear that some of the boys who died in a 1914 fire on the school grounds, for example, were probably buried elsewhere. Why was the state resistant to letting you excavate elsewhere?
There had been a lot of different reports from men who'd been sent there as boys, former employees, and families who over the years have visited the school, tried to get information, been told different things and shown different things. There were all these reports of burials away from that area [where the white crosses were]. We tried to follow up on those. The property at the time was 1400 acres. It was split in half by a road. That road served for segregation. Until 1968, it was really two schools that mirrored each other.
So, the different pieces of property are managed by different state entities. The one where we were working was under the property of the Department of Environmental Protection. The other half was and is controlled by the Department of Juvenile Justice. When we went to them to say, can we have access to the property, they were preparing to sell it and said no. That was initially what limited the scope of what we were trying to do. But at that point we were just trying to locate burials, not excavate them. And when the families pushed for repatriation and we found so many more burials than what we expected, the Florida cabinet collectively stepped in and said, OK, you can have access and excavate all the burials.
This time last year you found 55 bodies in unmarked graves. What was that day or days like? Was your team shocked, surprised, sad?
All the burials were unmarked. None of them were marked; even where there were crosses, they didn't quite line up. If you look at a picture, there are 31 white crosses, yet there are only 13 individuals buried there. Everyone else was nearby, but they were extended into the woods and under the roadway. We had to clear a lot of wooded land.
I think what struck us was that these were really, truly lost. Nobody would've ever known that they were here. It's not just a matter of did the markers line up. They were really, truly gone. There was a huge mulberry tree next to the white crosses. It was right on top of two of the graves and ultimately we had to remove the tree to get to the burials there.
You said at the time that 55 bodies was many more than you'd expected and opened up "a whole new set of questions," including the timing and circumstances around these boys' deaths. In how many cases have you been able to determine the cause of death? What are the barriers to doing so?
The whole process of skeletal and dental analysis is ongoing. We're not done by any means and we haven't even really started to analyze the data. There is a question about preservation. While the preservation has proven good for DNA, it isn't good for cause of death. That's a much higher standard. You basically need all the bones perfectly intact. You're already sort of hampered by not having soft tissue. Anything affecting bone—trauma or disease—will leave signature marks on bone.
But the outer surface of the bone in this case is poorly preserved, so we really don't have that. I think in the end we won't be able to answer as much about the true causes of death as we'd hoped.
The school grounds were segregated. Have you been able to determine if the grave sites were too?
That's something we looked for, trying to find patterns. We looked for that right away. It spoke to the question of whether there was more than one burial ground. It looks like it was not segregated. The individuals we've identified so far who were white, at the end of the row was Earl Wilson, who was black. It doesn't appear to have been segregated.
We haven't spent much time on this ourselves, because the main thrust is finding the burials, but until 1913 the school actually had girls there as well.
It did. Black and white girls and boys. Far fewer girls, but they were sent there as well. In 1913 there'd been a report by the state that outlined pretty poor conditions and a lot of abuse, particularly among these female students, who were left in the hands of these men—it wasn't the right sort of reform, if you will. They created a separate girls's school. But for the first 13 years, there's a whole other story of what was going on with these young girls and young women.
How old were the boys at the school, on average?
Collectively, there were children as young as five and as old as 21. It seems like the majority of those who died—because those are the ones who have ended up on our radar—the majority are 10 to 13 year old range. Some of the early legislative reports talk about five year olds.
We know there was one six-year-old boy who was—they hired him out for labor. Five or six year olds, they were hired out for house boys. Everybody found a place.
For those who end up dead, there are two six years olds: a little white boy and little black boy. The little white boy, in the records it said he was an orphan. But the little black boy, George Grissom, it said "delinquent." He was charged with delinquency, as was his eight-year-old brother.
They were hired out as houseboys. George was brought back to the school unconscious and died. We don't know what happened to him. We don't know why. And then we've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened to his brother Ernest, who had been eight. I hoped if he grew up there might have been descendants. But he just disappears from the record in 1919. That's the last ledger entry for him. It doesn't say if he was paroled or sent home. It just doesn't say. We're working on the genealogy, but we haven't found any record of him or their mother. I'm not sure what happened to them.
You've said that the bodies are extensively decomposed and many of the coffins contain just fragments. What aren't there full skeletons?
It's a couple of different factors. In part it's because they're children, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old children. And so what happens when you're that age and growing, your bones start to mineralize and become hard bone. So any time you're dealing with juvenile remains, the mineral content isn't the same. You're starting out with less hard inorganic material and it doesn't preserve as well. Add to it a very wet environment where the water table is very high, and that is what I think has caused a lot of damage. Probably the most difficult thing for preservation has been the tree roots. They're growing literally through the remains.
I'm really happy we were able to get the DNA results that we have, though. That's due to the level of testing available today.
What are the DNA results you've been able to get from things like teeth? What do you do with them?
Identifying who it is. At the same time we're tracking down relatives of these people and collecting what's called a family reference sample, a buccal swab, and then matching to the families.
In at least one case, a casket in Philadelphia believed to contain the body of a Dozier boy was opened but no body was found—nor was any evidence that he'd ever been there. Do you have any theories on why that might be?
We did collect DNA reference samples from families. The boy's name was Thomas Curry. Right now that is under analysis and being compared to everyone that we did excavate from Boot Hill, in the event that he was buried at Boot Hill. I don't know what happened to him. One possible theory is that he was just buried at the school. It was pretty standard practice for them to bury them the same day or the next day. Curry's parents were deceased. It's conceivable the school thought he was orphan buried, him, then the grandmother made a claim. But I don't know that.
Another basic mystery at Dozier is why the record-keeping is so poor: we don't even know in many cases who is buried in a grave. Do you have any theories about why that might be?
It's a great question. I really don't know the answer, to be truthful. I don't know why it happened the way it did. One thing I tell my students [is that] the only analogy I can find is the convict lease system. At the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, they really didn't have prisons. All the convicts were leased out to labor bosses, who would come to the court and take custody of them. The conditions were deplorable. Some were outright murdered, raped, and abused, then typically buried at the ends of the fields or the ends of the road in unmarked graves. That burial practice is the most analogous I can find.
At the same time as the school, before 1960, there was a state hospital that kept records. A lot of the staff worked back and forth. In fact, the state hospital in the 1920s, Florida State Hospital, had such a large number of deaths they had their own casket factory. They do to this day.
We tried to look for comparisons, different types of cemeteries, burial practices, just to put tin that historical context. That's where we're at, but we have more work to do.
Have you encountered any resistance to what you're doing from the townsfolk in Marianna, some of whom openly doubt the abuses at the Dozier school happened?
I think overall the reaction there has been very mixed. We've had tremendous support and help which has been invaluable. People who live there, they know the land, some of them worked there. We need that inside perspective. There's been a lot of people who've truly been very helpful. They don't necessarily want their names shared. They're fearful of what others might think of them or their participation. The people who've opposed this have been very vocal but I think they're in the minority. They've used the press or political positions, things like that. It comes off that they speak for the community and I really don't think that's true.
You've been able to call several families and tell them that the bodies of their loved ones have been recovered. What are those conversations like?
We've tried to do them in person as much as possible. We've come to know some of these families really well and have just a great relationship with them. It felt very personal to be able to go there and share that with them. Even what they hope for and what they want, I think they're in shock. I'm thinking of Ovell Krell [ at left, with a photo of her brother], who went with her parents to try to claim her brother's remains in 1941. She's one of Florida's first female police officers. She dedicated her life to trying to solve mysteries and find the truth. [When we told her we'd identified her brother's remains], I think she was in shock.
It was thrilling and rewarding to be able to do that for her. That's what we tried to impress upon people. Just because people didn't have that capacity in 1940, why let people get left on the wayside? If they're asking for help we should do everything we can for them.
Do you hear from adult former Dozier boys telling you where to dig or what to look for?
We've interviewed a lot. One of the components of this is sitting down and doing interviews [with] men who were there as boys, as well as former staff. My colleague Antoinette Jackson is doing that. She's a cultural anthropologist. They've given a lot of testimonies about things they heard or saw or experienced. What life was like, day-to-day routines, what was it like at different points in time. Ultimately the goal of that is to create a resource and archive. It'll ultimately be available through the USF library as a digital ethnographic archive for people to do research. Part of what we're trying to do here is document the history.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the abuse claims in 2010 and said they didn't find proof they were true. What do you make of that?
I can't really answer that yet, in part because we're not done. I do think that their purpose in their investigation was very different than ours. They were looking at it as law enforcement: is there a criminal case we can prosecute? That's the perspective of law enforcement. As a scientist I'm not somebody who could ever say a crime was committed. I can say what physical evidence we find, but it's up to the legal system to interpret that.
One thing that's really important is to change the dialogue and the way people think about justice when it comes to historic or long-term cases. If we do this work very day in the area of long-term missing person and cold cases, any law enforcement agency will tell you that in a lot of these older cases, justice doesn't just come from criminal prosecution. Sometimes it comes from exposing abuse or giving families peace by knowing what happened or returning remains to them. There are a lot of different forms of what justice means. We've argued that it's important for the families and all of us to have the facts established and have a lot of transparency and acknowledgment of what happened.
Does that mean justice is served? I don't know. I can't answer that. But that's within our capacity to do and what happens then is up to other people.
In some places with painful histories—Gettysburg, for example—people sometimes say you can feel that history in the air. Is that true of the Dozier School?
There's truth in that. I think that given the history of that part of Florida as well, this is one critical piece of a bigger picture. That bigger picture is the history of the region. To understand that you have to look at a lot of things that happened with racial disparities, lynchings, segregation, and slavery. There's a legacy there that is still very present. It's not something that's just from "back then." It's something people experienced and those people live with it every day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photo: Dr. Kimmerle and other workers remove remains from the graves on Boot Hill, 2013. Photo via AP. Photos of Dozier excavation courtesy of Dr. Erin Kimmerle and the University of South Florida; photos of Dick Colon and Ovell Krell via the AP.