For decades, the little graveyard on the campus of the old Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna was all but forgotten. Once in a while, inmates from the nearby county jail would cut the grass at Boot Hill while the Panhandle sun baked the crooked rows of 31 pipe crosses that didn't even mark actual graves. But visitors to the clearing in the pines were few and far between.
On Saturday, as forensic anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida will begin unearthing remains of the boys buried here, many will turn their attention to the cemetery on the edge of town, about an hour's drive west of Tallahassee.
USF has fielded requests for information from media outlets around the world, a spokeswoman said. And a new Department of Justice grant for $423,528, announced today, coupled with $190,000 from the state, will fund the exhumations and DNA testing that researchers will use to identify the remains and determine how the boys met their deaths.
Dr. Greg Ridgeway, acting director of the DOJ's National Institute of Justice, which issued the grant, said the project is unique.
"As far as I know, we haven't done this kind of mass site before," he said. "In addition to the compelling story in this particular case … as a science agency, we recognize that there's a lot we can learn here."
Exhumations, and answers, can't come soon enough for the families of the dead, and for a group of men who call themselves the White House Boys. In October 2008, five of them who had connected on the Internet persuaded a former state legislator to let them return to campus and tell of the beatings they received from school administrators in a little white building in the 1950s and '60s. They spoke of boys who disappeared in the night, and of witnessed atrocities choked back for decades by silence or booze or anger.
When news spread in a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times called "For Their Own Good," hundreds more men came forward with the same memories about being beaten so badly with a weighted leather strap that they had to pick pieces of their underpants from the lacerations on their backsides.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the allegations and the cemetery. The FDLE found that school records indicated 29 boys and two men were buried at Boot Hill, a perfect fit to the 31 crosses, planted by a superintendent in 1996 based on folklore. Case closed.
But three years later, USF researchers used ground-penetrating radar and found 50 probable burial shafts, many scattered in woods outside the perimeter of the graveyard. They also believe there may be another cemetery on campus. They'll begin Saturday to carefully remove the remains from the grave shafts and transport them to a lab at USF in Tampa for study.
DNA samples will be shipped to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where they will be compared to samples submitted by relatives of several of the dead and entered into the Combined DNA Index System and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
The relatives of seven dead boys have submitted DNA. DNA and other biological evidence from the unidentified remains will be used to compare with others from the two national databases in hopes of finding matches.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.