MARIANNA — At sunup Saturday, in a clearing surrounded by kudzu-heavy woods on the campus of a brutal reform school, a team of researchers carefully began digging holes around a little clandestine cemetery, hoping the red dirt would give up its secrets.
They were searching for the remains of young wards of the Dozier School for Boys, who died in state custody and were buried without the dignity of a permanent marker.
A few hours after noon, the first human remains were found at the bottom of a shallow hole about 30 yards north of rows of crooked pipe crosses, which were planted in the 1990s based on folklore. The researchers, from the University of South Florida, gathered around the hole to examine a casket handle found near the remains.
"The hardware puts it in the 1940s or later," said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF who is leading the tedious effort to find and identify all the remains, to learn how they died and then to return those identified to families. She expected the northern burials to be the oldest, but school records show that many of the burials came before 1940. "We'll learn more as we go," she said.
The team of about 20 anthropologists, archaeologists, police detectives and graduate students say their fieldwork on this inaugural trip will end Tuesday, but they plan to return later for several more weeks of work. The first day "went very well, as we expected," Kimmerle said. "It's a very slow process and we wanted to start out using very traditional archaeological methods to control the context."
By sundown, they had opened three large holes, slowly digging deeper into the red clay and darker patches of mottled earth, which indicate burial shafts. They sifted the dirt for coffin nails, burial furniture and other artifacts that might add context.
Across Pennsylvania Avenue, on what was the white side of campus before integration, a group of older men stood before a tall chain-linked fence topped with razor wire. They call themselves the Black Boys of Dozier and the White House Boys, and they're the impetus for the archaeological work.
In 2008, after decades of silence, a group of them went public with stories of physical and sexual abuse in the 1950s and 1960s at the school, then called the Florida School for Boys or the Florida Industrial School. As their numbers grew into the hundreds, stories surfaced of classmates who disappeared and of ruthless guards who beat them bloody in a squat building on campus called the White House. The men felt insulted when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2009 found no evidence of foul play and didn't use ground penetrating radar to map the graveyard. Using GPR two years later, USF found 50 possible grave shafts, 19 more than the FDLE found.
The men came Saturday to show solidarity, and to bear witness.
Among them stood Tananarive Due, an author and professor from Atlanta. Her great uncle, Robert Stephens, died at the school in 1937. School records say he was killed by another student, but the family has heard conflicting stories. They want to learn what happened to him, and to rebury his remains at the family plot in Quincy.
"That would be a great sense of homecoming," she said.
She and her family drove to the little cemetery and stood among the crosses as pastor Ronald Mizer, from the local St. James AME Church, prayed with them.
"We're not here to castigate the state of Florida, but it was important to me to be here so that my grandson could understand," said her father, John Due, a lawyer, who draped his arm over the 9-year-old grandson's shoulder. "So that we could resolve some of the bitterness."
"Thank you all for your good work," Tananarive Due told the researchers.
"Thank you for keeping the story alive," her father said.
The Dues and the families of six other boys who died here have submitted DNA samples to help identify remains. They were happy the project was approved by the Florida Cabinet last month, after several challenges.
Some Jackson County residents, led mostly by amateur historian Dale Cox, have been upset by the project and have tried to stop it. Cox only recently quit his campaign to halt the exhumations. Local politicians say they're worried the media coverage of the exhumations will reflect poorly on rural Jackson County and on Marianna, "the City of Southern Charm," population 9,000.
But many here have been welcoming. Deputies from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office are providing security at the site. The Marianna police chief drove out to see if the researchers needed anything. One woman approached the group at a Mexican restaurant on Friday evening.
"Are you the folks doing the exhumations?" she whispered. "I hope you find the truth."
Jan Poller, who has lived in Marianna since 1983, drove to the site Saturday morning and introduced herself to a USF representative. She said she wanted to thank the team.
"I know you got a lot of negative responses, but this is something that needs to be resolved," she said. "If you had a relative missing all these years, you'd want to know what happened."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.