Dozier School, Dead Boys, and Forensic Setting to Rights

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At least 81 boys died. Their remains lie in unmarked graves spread over the shuttered campus of the Florida Reform School for Boys. Located in Marianna, Florida, this brutal reform school – also known as the Dozier School for Boys – spread death and damage among the thousands of boys who came through its gates over a period of 111 years.

Now my University of South Florida colleague Erin Kimmerle is heading a multi-disciplinary team to find the boys’ graves and lead a humanitarian effort to bring some closure and healing to the boys’ families.

As recounted in the recent Tampa Bay Times article, USF team looks for lost graves at closed Dozier School for Boys, the project “aims to preserve the records, inventory historic buildings, find the graves, identify the forgotten remains, protect the historic cemetery and open it to families.”

Working in collaboration with USF archaeologist Richard Estabrook, Kimmerle and her team have begun to use ground-penetrating radar in the search.

Estabrook went to work with the GPR, which he named Matilda, pushing the device back and forth along the lines, like mowing a lawn. The GPR recorded 250 subsurface samples every 2 centimeters, and Estabrook watched the monitor, noting places where the radar picked up an anomaly, a spot where the subsurface density changes.

Ethnography, biological samples, excavations, and more will follow. But for now, using the radar, “We’re finding graves throughout this whole area.”

None of this will come as a surprise to boys who came through the Dozier School. A previous St Pete/Tampa Bay Times article “For Their Own Good” covered the horrific beatings they endured during the 1950s and 1960s:

The men remember the same things: blood on the walls, bits of lip or tongue on the pillow, the smell of urine and whiskey, the way the bed springs sang with each blow. The way they cried out for Jesus or mama. The grinding of the old fan that muffled their cries. The one-armed man who swung the strap.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement produced a 2010 executive report of investigations on “The White House Boys,” the main site where the whippings occurred. As one former boy put it: “he was spanked with such force that his buttocks were ‘black and blue and bloody’ and that his underwear was imbedded into his skin.”

In the video accompanying “For Their Own Good,” one man says of the White House, “As soon as they opened the door, it smelled like death.”

But some boys can no longer speak, and Kimmerle is using her skills as an applied biological anthropologist to find remains and document stories around the world. This is work she has done for years. In 2001 Kimmerle served as chief anthropologist for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Kimmerle now heads up USF’s International Consortium for Forensics, Anthropology, and Human Rights, which includes the USF Forensic Anthropology Lab. The Lab offers “human identification, facial imaging, living person age estimation, clandestine grave search and recovery, grave excavation, trauma analysis and expert testimony.”

In addition to her work on the Dozier School, Kimmerle is collaborating with local medical examiners and law enforcement agencies in Tampa to solve cold cases. Four cases have been solved; twelve more cases are featured on the Tampa Bay Cold Case Project site. Each case provides a detailed description, including facial and clothing reconstructions, and asks for information to help identify the deceased.

Photo Credit for the Dozier School graves: Edmund Fountain, St. Pete/Tampa Bay Times; original found here

Photo Credit for Ground Penetrating Radar: Katy Hennig, University of South Florida

Link to USF Team Looks for Lost Graves at Closed Dozier School for Boys

Link to the University of South Florida’s coverage, Lost in the Woods, which includes a photo essay and a 6 minute video that describes the research

Link to For Their Own Good site on abuse at Dozier School

Link to Dr. Erin Kimmerle’s website

Link to USF’s International Consortium for Forensics, Anthropology, and Human Rights

Lost in the Woods Video:

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