USF researchers identified two additional bodies, including the first black boy buried at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
The remains of Thomas Varnadoe, 13, and Earl Wilson, 12, bring the total number of children identified to three. Both boys were found in an unmarked grave on the north side of the campus and their remains will be returned to their families.
The identifications were made through DNA samples collected by USF researches and matched at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“It’s just remarkable that we were able to find that needle in a haystack so we could find closure for these boys,” State Sen. Kelli Stargel said at the press conference Thursday afternoon.
Despite earlier claims that the cemeteries at the school were segregated, the body of Wilson was found “fairly close” to Owen Smith, the first boy identified by USF researcher Erin Kimmerle and her team last month.
Wilson was admitted to the reform school in 1944 and after only two months, he and eight other boys were moved into the “sweat box” as punishment. Kimmerle said documents analyzed by researchers show that only black boys at the school were sentenced to be confined to the 7-by-10-foot enclosure.
According to court documents from the time, Wilson was killed by four of the eight students confined to the same sweat box. Medical evidence from the trial suggested the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
Kimmerle said researchers were unable to determine a cause of death.
Wilson’s nephew, Wayne, didn’t know that Earl had left the house and never came back, but said he is glad that uncertainty surrounding what exactly happened has come to an end.
“It was a big relief to (my mother), me and my brothers,” Wilson said. “And to think of all the brothers and sisters who passed without ever knowing.”
Varnadoe was sent to the Dozier School for Boys a decade earlier, in September of 1934, along with his older brother, Hubert. According to Varnadoe’s death certificate, he died of pneumonia 48 days later, despite his family’s claims that he was in good health.
Varnadoe’s nephew Glen thanked researchers for their perseverance and quoted what Florida Sen. Bill Nelson told him when he first decided to pursue the truth about what happened to his uncle: “Where there is smoke, there’s fire.”
“I’m overwhelmed that we were able to achieve our goals and remove (him) from the atrocity-ridden ground,” Varnadoe said.
Both the Varnadoe and Wilson families said they will not pursue criminal charges in the deaths of their family members.
When asked whether or not the state would re-inter the bodies of boys who could not be identified, Stargel said her personal belief was that the state has a responsibility to do so.
“Obviously we need to work with local officials … to see what best to do with them,” Stargel said.
Researchers have been granted access to the now-closed Dozier School for Boys until August 2015. Kimmerle said they plan to go back to the school to do further research and testing next summer.
Antoinette Jackson, a USF anthropology professor and member of the Dozier research team, said she will hold a discussion Nov. 18 to explore the historical context and provide a narrative to what was going on at the school when many of the boys were buried there.