MARIANNA — The bones came up from the red earth of Jackson County, from a forgotten corner of the campus of Florida's oldest reform school. Putting them back into the ground, deciding how and where the remains of boys who died in state custody should spend eternity, proved hard.
After a tense, emotional, five-hour meeting of a task force charged with making that decision, the nine-member board voted to recommend that the legislature rebury the boys somewhere in Tallahassee and erect some sort of monument at the reform school, acknowledging the school's history.
The lack of specific details on where the burials should occur and what any memorials should look like is a reflection of deep disagreement among the panel, which included local and state politicians, historians, a clergyman, an NAACP representative, a former state trooper and the president of a group of survivors and former wards of the school.
The decision was the latest chapter in a saga that started in 2008, when five old men began speaking publicly about how they were beaten and molested in the 1950s and '60s at the Florida School for Boys, which opened in 1900. More than 500 men have made similar claims. After a Tampa Bay Times investigation, forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida spent three years unearthing and identifying 53 sets of remains found in a hidden cemetery and in surrounding woods. About half have been matched with names, and a handful returned to families. The rest are being stored until an exact burial spot is chosen.
The task force settled early on three locations where the remains would be buried: Garden of Memories Cemetery on Lake Avenue in Tampa; Tallahassee Memory Gardens Cemetery, six miles north of downtown Tallahassee; and back in Jackson County, maybe even at the original site. There were also calls to bury them on state property near the state capitol, within view of state legislators, as a reminder.
The survivors of abuse at the Florida School for Boys, called the White House Boys, were nearly unanimous in opposition to returning the boys to the campus.
"Those bodies should never be returned to Jackson County," said Bob Baxter, whose parents sent him to the school in 1950. "To return those boys back to a place like that would be like killing them again."
But Dale Landry, representing the Florida state conference of the NAACP, favored a memorial on the old reform school campus as a permanent reminder of the shameful way children were treated there.
"You've got to acknowledge what you did in the past," he said, speaking of the people of Marianna, many of whom opposed digging up the cemetery. He pointed out the history of racial violence in Jackson County, the 1934 spectacle lynching of Claude Neal and that more than 70 percent of the remains buried at the reform school were identified as African American. "I say to Jackson County: Remember what happened. You have the opportunity to protect the children."
James Dean, the Marianna city manager, called for reconciliation. He said that the negative attention has harmed the town's economy and the area has lost 5,800 jobs since the school, also called the Dozier School for Boys, closed in 2011.
"We are not for hiding anything," Dean said. "But the citizens in our community are not for sensationalizing what happened at the reform school." He said any memorial at the site should be "modest" and "tell the entire story of the reform school, both good and bad."
But "this county stood there and wouldn't let them dig up the bodies," Landry said. "There's blood on that land, and just to try to wash it away won't work."
The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, called for a broader remembering, asking that buildings on the old campus be preserved to help tell the dark story of what was once the largest reformatory in the country.
"If we don't get the 'why' right, what we build will fail to do the work that needs to be done," he said. "At the center of Dozier is a trauma that spread across the state of Florida. Without a place, the dead are forgotten even though their deaths impact generations thereafter."
In the end, agreeing on the specifics proved too difficult.
Florida A&M history professor David Jackson, the board's historical advisor, warned the panel that relocating the remains will make people wonder why they were moved. He pointed out memorials at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary.
"What do you want the story to be? This is not about black and white. It's about child abuse and the state of Florida's neglect of the children in its care," he said. "If the remains are buried outside the community, there will be questions about why they were not buried in this place."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.