TALLAHASSEE — They call themselves the White House Boys, but they're old men now. Gray hair falls from their ball caps. They have bad backs and failing hearts and pictures of grandchildren in their wallets.
Tuesday morning, they slid into chairs before the Florida Cabinet. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Florida carried them away from their families and deposited them at one of the country's largest reform schools, in the Panhandle town of Marianna, a place where, some of them say, they were beaten so badly they can still feel it.
Many of them never told a soul what happened inside a dank building called the White House, where the boys bit a pillow and tried to pray the pain away. Their secrets gathered dust. But decades later, when a group of them reunited on the campus and discovered a backwoods cemetery, where crude pipe crosses marked clandestine graves, they set to find out what happened to the boys who never left.
Their petition, spearheaded by anthropologists and archaeologists at the University of South Florida, finally landed before the top four officials in a state they say has failed them at every turn. And finally, the state didn't let them down.
"In a state as old as Florida is, we're going to have chapters in our history we're more proud of than others," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, "but there is no shame in searching for the truth." The issue, he said, has been ignored too long by state officials.
The Cabinet voted to approve a use agreement that gives USF a year to excavate the little cemetery in the hopes of finding all burials and identifying the remains. In some cases, researchers said, they'll rebury boys in their home towns, beside their families.
Led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, USF researchers will start excavations this month.
"We've very grateful to (Attorney General) Pam Bondi for helping to make this happen," Kimmerle said after the meeting. "And we're thankful to the Cabinet and the governor. It's been a long process."
The researchers have already used ground-penetrating radar to count some 50 burial shafts surrounded by thick pines, 19 more than state investigators found in an earlier investigation ordered by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
But some believe there are even more, and USF is searching for a second burial site.
"There's not going to be enough crime scene tape in the state of Florida to take care of this situation," said Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral, who received more than 100 lashes during a beating at the school.
About two dozen former wards of the school, known recently as the Dozier School for Boys, stood and clapped and wiped their eyes when the Cabinet's decision was announced.
"I'm numb," said Roger Kiser, 67, of Brunswick, Ga., who was sent to Marianna after running from an abusive orphanage. "I don't know what to say. I'm just glad that Florida is finally doing the right thing."
"We have fought so hard to get to this point," said Bryant Middleton, 68, of Fort Walton Beach. "They're going to find out the truth."
"Marianna made slaves out of us. I cut my toes in the fields of Marianna at 11," said Richard Huntly, president of the Black Boys at Dozier Reform School. "They were supporting their finances on the backs of us children."
Some of his classmates, he said, disappeared.
"We all came back for them. We remembered," he said. "If they could hear us today. We came back for you. You boys can go home today."
Antoinette Harrell, a genealogist and peonage researcher, said the decision, and USF's continuing work, will go a long way toward bringing closure to the men who still live with trauma from beatings at the school.
"It was slavery. It was one big plantation," she said. "The ones who survived, they deserve closure."
The school opened in 1900 and was shuttered in 2011, after a century of scandals involving claims of sexual abuse, neglect and severe belt beatings. In 2008, five men went public with stories of abuse at the hands of guards. Hundreds more came forward with similar stories. Several recall their classmates disappearing, and a few even claim to have dug boy-sized holes on command.
Some locals in Jackson County dispute those claims and say the corporal punishment, common at the time, is misremembered, that their friends and relatives and neighbors would never have treated boys in that fashion. A handful made efforts to stop any further research into the graveyard. The USF team, with the backing of the local medical examiner and the state Attorney General's Office, have seen their project delayed by a circuit judge, and more recently the secretary of state, who said it wasn't within his power to allow them to exhume the remains.
What is known is that school records show nearly 100 boys died on school grounds or while trying to run away, but questions persist about where many of them are buried. Andrew F. Puel Jr., who was sent to the school in 1966, says he has found the names of 169 boys who school records show were not discharged. He wonders what happened to them.
USF's Kimmerle said she shared the news with Ovell Krell of Lakeland. Her brother died at the school under suspicious circumstances, and the loss, she says, crippled her mother. Krell was overjoyed.
Kimmerle said she's not certain how long the process —which includes forensic examination, identification and DNA testing in some cases — will take.
"Our goal is to identify every individual," she said. "That's probably not possible, but we're going to try. Those not identified will be reinterred at the location."
Florida CFO Jeff Atwater said he hopes the Legislature, which already approved spending $190,000 on USF's project, will continue to fund it until all the remains are reunited with families.
"This is a historic day," said Robert Straley, 66, of Clearwater. "We finally found an administration with the guts to go back in time to help the boys who couldn't help themselves."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.