Sunday, June 17, 2018
Education

Cabinet agrees to let USF researchers exhume bodies at Dozier

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.

 
Comments
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum...
Published: 06/14/18
University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

The University of Chicago will no longer require ACT or SAT scores from U.S. students, sending a jolt through elite institutions of higher education as it becomes the first top-10 research university to join the test-optional movement.Numerous school...
Published: 06/14/18
Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano presented to the School Board Tuesday nearly $53 million worth of budget priorities, asking them to choose which will be funded in the upcoming school year.The board voted 3-2 later Tue...
Published: 06/13/18
UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

The University of Tampa’s MFA program will host the June 2018 Residency Visiting Writers Lectores Series that runs from now until June 21 on the ninth floor of the Vaughn Center, 401 W Kennedy Blvd. Each reading will be held at 7:30 p.m.Each January ...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/15/18
Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano will step down at the end of this month following a 3-2 vote by the School Board to terminate its contract with her amid increasing concerns about her ability to lead.Romano has suffere...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18
Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

NEW PORT RICHEY — The dozen Fivay High school students and their administrators arrived at the Pasco County school district’s annual Together We Stand conference with a clear goal in mind.With hundreds of former Ridgewood High students arriving in th...
Published: 06/12/18
Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

BROOKSVILLE — Historic Camp Perry is where it’s at. Located near Clinton, Ohio, the National Guard training facility is where the nation’s top shooters go to compete.Next week, some of Hernando County’s top shooters compete there in the Civilian Mark...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/14/18
An ambitious new goal for Hillsborough schools: Every child up to speed on reading by third grade

An ambitious new goal for Hillsborough schools: Every child up to speed on reading by third grade

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins has an ambitious new goal. He wants more students to be proficient in reading."I think it is the code to crack," Eakins said in an interview. He also told the School Board on Tuesday that ...
Published: 06/08/18