The grounds of Floridas most notorious youth prison, a century-old Panhandle reform school, are now a 220-acre money pit that costs more to maintain than the property may be worth. Youth corrections administrators had circled Oct. 15 as the date they could finally unload the place, and its many ghosts.
But the sale of the controversial Dozier School for Boys hit an unexpected snag Thursday as the brother and nephew of a 13-year-old boy who died there in 1934 filed suit in Tallahassee, asking a judge to stop the sale so that family members can find the childs now-hidden grave.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a decades-long saga involving scores of now-grown men from throughout the state who say they were raped or mercilessly beaten or both at the Marianna campus. The White House Boys as some of the men have dubbed themselves after the squat white-washed cottage where they were whipped sometimes 100 times or more have spawned at least two books and a movement to extract some type of compensation from the Florida Legislature.
Glen Varnadoe is not one of the White House Boys. He says he is a 63-year-old man who just wants to return his uncles remains to a family graveyard in Marion County, where they belong.
He was a 13-year-old kid, and he deserves, at some point, to be brought back home to his mother, said Varnadoe, who lives in Lakeland. All this case is about is bringing a 13-year-old home and burying him with the rest of the family.
Varnadoe and his uncle, Joseph R. Varnadoe, will appear before a Leon Circuit Court judge at 3 p.m. Friday in an effort to stop the sale of the Dozier property.
Late Thursday, the Department of Juvenile Justices chief, Wansley Walters, said her agency will reconsider the states decision to close off the campus from researchers and family members seeking to locate the graves of children who died there.
As secretary of the [DJJ], I am profoundly aware of the historical significance of the North Florida Youth Development Center [NFYDC], formerly the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Walters said. One of the decisions I am most proud of is that this administration closed NFYDC in 2011. After careful consideration, we will work with the researchers on how best to provide them access to the site.
For several months, a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida has been scouring the boys school campus in search of what they believe to be the unmarked graves of an unknown number of children who died during Doziers more than 100 years of operation. In July, Erin Kimmerle, an anthropology professor, asked state land managers for permission to study a portion of the school, known as the South Campus, where state juvenile justice administrators operated a corrections center until last year. The South Campus originally contained cottages, schools and other facilities used exclusively by white children; African-American youth had been housed in a separate campus nearby.
The North Campus, where black children were housed, now contains several ramshackle cottages that though largely falling apart were frozen in time decades ago, with furniture, books and Bibles scattered as they were the day the campus was closed. It also holds a cemetery called Boot Hill with about 30 graves in neat rows loosely marked by spare crosses of white-washed PVC pipe.