MARIANNA -- At sun up Saturday, in a clearing surrounded by kudzu-heavy woods on the campus of a brutal reform school, a team of researchers carefully began digging holes around a little clandestine cemetery, hoping the red dirt would give up its secrets.
They were searching for the remains of young wards of the Dozier School for Boys, who died in state custody and were buried without the dignity of a permanent marker.
A few hours after noon, the first human remains were found at the bottom of a shallow hole about 30 yards north of rows of crooked pipe crosses, which were planted in the 1990s based on folklore. The researchers, from the University of South Florida, gathered around the hole to examine a casket handle found near the remains.
“The hardware puts it in the 1940s or later,” said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF who is leading the tedious effort to find and identify all the remains, to learn how they died, and then to return those identified to families. She expected the northern burials to be the oldest, but school records show that many of the burials came before 1940. “We’ll learn more as we go,” she said.
The team of about 20 anthropologists, archaeologists, police detectives and graduate students say their field work on this inaugural trip will end Tuesday, but they plan to return later for several more weeks of work. The first day “went very well, as we expected,” Kimmerle said. “It’s a very slow process and we wanted to start out using very traditional archaeological methods to control the context.”
By sun down, they had opened three large holes, slowly digging deeper into the red clay and darker patches of mottled earth, which indicate burial shafts. They sifted the dirt for coffin nails and burial furniture and other artifacts that might add context.
Across Pennsylvania Avenue, on what was the white side of campus before integration, a group of older men stood before a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire. They call themselves the Black Boys of Dozier and the White House Boys and they’re the impetus for the archaeological work.
In 2008, after decades of silence, a group of them went public with stories of physical and sexual abuse in the 1950s and 1960s at the school, then called the Florida School for Boys or the Florida Industrial School. As their numbers grew into the hundreds, stories surfaced of classmates who disappeared and of ruthless guards who beat them bloody in a squat building on campus called the White House. The men felt insulted when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2009 found no evidence of foul play and didn’t use ground penetrating radar to map the graveyard. Using GPR two years later, USF found 50 possible grave shafts, 19 more than the FDLE found.
The men came Saturday to show solidarity, and to bear witness.
Among them stood Tananarive Due, a novelist, professor and former Miami Herald reporter from Atlanta. Her great uncle, Robert Stephens, died at the school in 1937. School records say he was killed by another student, but the family has heard conflicting stories. They want to learn what happened to him, and to rebury his remains at the family plot in Quincy.
“That would be a great sense of homecoming,” she said.
She and her family drove to the little cemetery and stood among the crosses as pastor Ronald Mizer, from the local St. James AME Church, prayed with them.