For more than a century, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., took in wayward youths in the hopes of reforming them and returning them to society. New scientific research shows that at least 49 of them ended up in a schoolyard graveyard instead.
The little plot of land known as the Boot Hill Cemetery adjacent to the now-defunct school features 31 crosses atop unmarked graves of the boys who died at the Dozier. However, records show that nearly 100 boys died over the school’s history, so many remain unaccounted for. Enter Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida anthropologist, who is leading a high-tech team of scientists in a search of the former school grounds.
Using lasers and digital imaging, Kimmerle’s team has so far found an additional 18 remains in the ground, bringing the total up to 49 graves. “We found burials within the current marked cemetery, and then we found burials that extend beyond that,” Kimmerle said. She hopes some families who have no record of their lost sons will have a chance to find the truth behind their loss: “It’s about restoring dignity,” she said.
A 2009 Florida state investigation experts believe the numerous corpses might have been the result of an influenza epidemic and a fire at the school.
But former Dozier inmates like Robert Straley argue the deaths at the school weren’t the result of accident or illness: “From 1900 to 1910, God knows how many died! Because the conditions were even worse. The boys were in welded chains, they were beaten if they didn’t do a man’s work, which means they got beat every day, they were thrown in with the men at night and raped, bad food, sickness…”
In the nightmarish world of the Dozier School, the worst punishments were inflicted in the a concrete-block building known as the “White House.” Robert Straley emerged from his time as a one of the so-called White House Boys to speak out against his experience.
Others weren’t so lucky. The family of George Owen Smith recently discovered that the boy’s grave was one of those marked with a dingy white cross. He had been sent to Dozier in the 1940′s but died at the school. Smith’s surviving sister Ovell Smith Krell recalled that a classmate of Smith’s told her Owen had been gunned down trying to escape. “I believe to this day that they shot my brother that night, and I think they probably killed him and brought him back to the school and buried him,” Krell said.
The Dozier School was closed in 2011 as a direct result of state budget cuts, but the school had faced a string of abuse complaints throughout its history. In 1982, officials were reprimanded for hogtying boys, and a 2009 inspection concluded the school had a decades-long ”culture of violence and abuse.” The mistreatment began in the school’s very early days: in 1903, it was discovered that administrators often shackled their young charges in leg irons.