MARIANNA, Fla. - Researchers from a Florida university began exhuming dozens of graves Saturday at a notorious former reform school where ex-inmates from the 1950s and 1960s have detailed horrific beatings that took place in a small, white concrete block building at the facility.
A group of survivors that call themselves the "White House Boys" have pushed for five years for an investigation into the graves at the former Dozier Boys School, which was plagued by scandal almost from its inception; tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children have been documented. The school in Florida's northwestern Panhandle opened in 1900 and shut down two years ago for budgetary reasons.
After the state ended an investigation in 2010 and said it could not substantiate or refute claims that boys died at the hands of staff, the University of South Florida began its own research and discovered even more graves than the state had identified.
USF has worked for months to secure a permit to exhume the remains, finally receiving permission from Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet after being rejected by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Scott. The researchers hope to identify the boys buried there and learn how they died.
The digging and work at the site will continue until Tuesday, with researchers hoping to unearth the remains of four to six boys before resuming at a later date, said Erin Kimmerle, the USF anthropologist leading the excavation.
After work began Saturday, relatives of one of the boys believed to be buried at the school held a private prayer at the grave sites. The family has provided DNA in hopes of finding a match with Robert Stephens. School records show he was fatally stabbed by another inmate in 1937, but his family hopes to confirm how he actually died through the exhumation efforts.
If his remains are found, his family says they will be reburied in a family plot in Quincy.
"That will be a great sense of homecoming," Tananarive Due said. The boy was Due's great-uncle. She was at the site Saturday with her son, father and husband, and said she hopes that other families will also be able to locate relatives buried there.
"Their families never had a proper opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. In a lot of cases children just disappeared," said Due, who lives in Atlanta.
Researchers were removing dirt with trowels and by hand to find the remains believed to be between about 19 inches (48 centimetres) to a little more than three feet (90 centimetres) under the surface.
In these historic cases, it's really about having an accurate record and finding out what happened and knowing the truth about what happened," Kimmerle said.
Kimmerle said the remains of about 50 people are in the graves. Some are marked with a plain, white steel cross, and others have no markings.
The school segregated white and black inmates and the remains are located where black inmates were held, Robert Straley, a spokesman for the "White House Boys," said. He suspects there is another white cemetery that hasn't been discovered.
"I think that there are at least 100 more bodies up there," he said. "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."
The holiday weekend's initial work is meant to ensure that the process works smoothly before researchers return to the site. The remains will be taken to Tampa to be studied. DNA obtained will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for analysis. The hope is that it can be matched to relatives. Ten families have contacted researchers in hopes of identifying relatives that might be buried at Dozier.
If matches are found, remains will be returned to the families.
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