USF anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle was doing fieldwork at the site of the Dozier School for Boys in spring when she received a call from Glen Varnadoe.
His uncle, Joseph Richard Varnadoe, 84, was in the hospital with pneumonia, and they weren’t sure if he would make it out.
But Joseph’s last wish was to make sure that he could somehow provide a DNA sample in hopes that if Kimmerle’s team found the remains of his brother, Thomas Henry, who he last saw when he was about six years old, the remains could be buried next to their mother.
Kimmerle said the wish was crushing to hear.
But Joseph made it out of the hospital, and on Friday, he, as well as two other family members of boys who died after being sent to the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Marianna, Fla., donated samples of DNA at the USF Research Park Galleria in hopes of finding answers they never received.
The DNA collected from family members will be sent to the University of North Texas, where it will be entered into a national database from which researchers will be able to compare DNA and allow remains to be sent to the families of the boys.
A School for Boys
Thomas Henry was 13 years old when he was sent by the state to the Dozier School for Boys. He was supposedly convicted of trespassing, his brother said. Joseph was about five or six at the time.
He doesn’t remember much about his brother, but he remembered the devastation it left in his family. He also remembered his brother was healthy “when they took him away.”
“Nothing wrong with him that I could remember,” he said.
But 34 days after he was sent away, the family was told that Thomas Henry was dead. Lobar pneumonia was the cause, they were told.
But the family didn’t believe it, Joseph said. They didn’t have any way of knowing what happened.
Ovell Smith Krell, 84, was 12 when her then 14-year-old brother, George Owen, was sent to the Dozier School after being accused of stealing a car and wrecking it.
After months of not receiving letters back from the school’s superintendent, Krell’s parents received a letter from a pastor at an Episcopalian Church in Marianna informing them of their son’s death.
Krell said her family never received closure.
“It made a big difference in my life,” she said as her eyes welled. “My mother never really got over it. My dad and I kind of had to take over the family. She just never was herself after that. Never. It was a shame. I think even if she could’ve gotten his body back, and we could’ve said ‘Yes, this is him,’ and we could have buried him, it could have been different. But not getting anything – not knowing what happened, not even really knowing for sure if he was dead. … I’m sure he is because I think he would have somehow gotten in touch with us.”
The Dozier School housed boys aged 13 to 21 who were sent to the reform school for misdeeds ranging from “incorrigibility” and “truancy” to more serious offenses. The school operated for more than 111 years when it was closed in 2011, following investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FLDLE) and U.S. Department of Justice.
According to FLDLE reports, interviews with about 100 survivors of the school, as well as former employees, include many allegations of abuse, prolonged
confinement, torture, rape and murder existed.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson said he remembers driving by the school as a child.
“I’d be going to visit my grandparents on that little country road that split the boys school,” he said. “The grounds were always immaculately groomed, and at Christmas time, people from all over the countryside would come to visit because of the Christmas light display. What we didn’t know back then, and what people as they have come forth and told, are the stories of torture and intimidation, of
beatings and abuse, and indeed, cases of possible murder.”
Recently, Nelson accompanied Kimmerle on a visit to the “White House,” the school’s concrete, block-like building.
“To call it a jail would be a kind terminology,” Nelson said. “A dungeon – whitewashed on the outside, but on the inside, under the dark, dank circumstances – kept the secrets of what is only just now being told.”
Boot Hill Cemetery: ‘A mystery’
Kimmerle was intrigued by reports she heard emerge from the investigation. She was also intrigued by the poor records the school kept.
According to school records, at least 81 boys had died while at the school. But at Boot Hill Cemetery, the site where the Dozier boys were buried, there were only 31 grave markers.
The rest were unaccounted for.
For 12 boys, school records simply stated, “colored boy died.”
For the past year, Kimmerle, anthropology professor Christian Wells and a team of researchers have been conducting fieldwork at the Boot Hill Cemetery, a site adjacent to the school’s garbage dump, which is covered in thick underbrush and debris. In the ’80s and ’90s, the land was used for farming and the sight was ploughed, and in recent years, people have buried their pets there.
The anthropologists have used ground planar radar (GPR) technology to survey the land, sending high-frequency radio waves, which reflect back different return signals based on what they hit below ground.
Following their GPR work, the team looked at the soil profile to confirm what they saw, looking for differences in soil and underground anomalies, Kimmerle said.
By December, the researchers confirmed the existence of at least 50 graves and requested a permit from the state of Florida to exhume the sites for skeletal autopsies that could identify the remains by matching them with DNA samples from relatives.
Though the permit request was initially denied by a circuit judge, state archaeologist and Chief of the Bureau of Archeological Research Mary Glowacki sent Kimmerle and Wells a letter asking for further information and clarifications before a permit could be granted.
“As it stands now, Boot Hill is not only a mystery, but far from a respectful, orderly and dignified resting place for children who were in state custody at the time of their deaths,” Kimmerle said.
Exhumation has sparked controversy and is imbued in the long and complex narrative of race and portions of Florida history that some would rather forget.
Since the request for exhumations began, many residents of Marianna have protested the exhumations in part due to concern over having to pay costs and that enough information could be found without exhuming the graves.
But others, such as the Florida State Conference (FSC) of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People and the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights have expressed interest in supporting the research.
“Researching and publicly sharing information about boys buried in Boot Hill Cemetery on the school grounds and the circumstance deaths that occurred from 1914-1960 during the era of segregation and heightened racial tension in Florida’s history is an important and much needed endeavor,” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the FSC said.
State senators Seth McKeel and Kelli Stargel, who were also present Friday at the USF Research Park, led the initiative to grant
$200,000 in state funds to continuing the research and exhumations.
Nelson, who has long expressed support for the research, wrote to the Department of Justice earlier this year seeking $3 million in grant money for the continuation of the research.
“The families deserve the answers,” he said. “They deserve to know the truth. These researchers are doing right by these families, are doing right on behalf of the deceased and doing right by the people who have owned that property for over a century – the people of Florida. You can’t do something by not doing anything when you find 50 bodies not properly accounted for, and the state can’t walk away from this.”
Kimmerle said the exhumations are intended only to bring a “small measure of justice” to the families.
“It is not about assigning blame for Dozier,” she said. “It is not about shaming the community of Marianna. It’s not about federal prosecution or seeking reparations for families. This project is about fulfilling a human right for families, who like all of us, are entitled to bury their relatives in the manner in which they deem proper. … The Dozier families have the right to know, to lay their brothers and uncles to rest. How we treat people in life and how we treat them in death is not just a reflection of who we were then, but a reflection of who we are now.”
But even if exhumations are allowed, questions may still remain unanswered.
Because of segregation and other practices that existed at the school, researchers suspect there may be more burial sites than the Boot Hill Cemetery.
While seven families have come forward in search of information about relatives who died at the Dozier school, and researchers are in the process of getting in touch with three more, many more graves exist. The remaining information found will be entered into the DNA database in the event that relatives come forward in the future. Those bodies will be re-interred where they are found.
But for families such as Varnadoe’s, the hope of closure is enough.
“It’s not just for my family,” Joseph said. “It’s for all the other people who had boys there. There’s a bunch of them that died from heaven knows really what reasons. They all deserve a little closure. (The perpetrators) know the truth. I want everybody to know the truth. … Even though nothing can be done about it now, the truth needs to come out.”