MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) — University of South Florida researchers began exhuming dozens of graves Saturday at a former Panhandle reform school where horrific beatings have been reported in hopes of identifying the boys and learning how they died.
The digging and work at the site of the former Dozier Boys School will continue until Tuesday, with researchers hoping to unearth the remains of four to six boys before resuming at a later date, said Erin Kimmerle, the USF anthropologist leading the excavation.
After work began Saturday, relatives of one of the boys believed to be buried at the school held a private prayer at the grave sites. The family has provided DNA in hopes of finding a match with Robert Stephens. School records show he was fatally stabbed by another inmate in 1937, but his family hopes to confirm how he actually died through the exhumation efforts.
If his remains are found, his family says they will be reburied in a family plot in Quincy.
“That will be a great sense of homecoming,” Tananarive Due said. The boy was Due’s great-uncle. She was at the site Saturday with her son, father and husband, and said she hopes that other families will also be able to locate relatives buried there.
“Their families never had a proper opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. In a lot of cases children just disappeared,” said Due, who lives in Atlanta.
Former inmates at the reform school from the 1950s and 1960s have detailed horrific beatings in a small, white concrete block building at the facility. A group of survivors call themselves the “White House Boys” and five years ago called for an investigation into the graves. In 2010, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ended an investigation and said it could not substantiate or refute claims that boys died at the hands of staff.
USF later began its own research and discovered even more graves than the state department had identified. USF has worked for months to secure a permit to exhume the remains, finally receiving permission from Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet after being rejected by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Scott.
“In these historic cases, it’s really about having an accurate record and finding out what happened and knowing the truth about what happened,” Kimmerle said of efforts at the school, which opened in 1900 and shut down two years ago for budgetary reasons.
Kimmerle said the remains of about 50 people are in the graves. Some are marked with a plain, white steel cross, and others have no markings.
Robert Straley, a spokesman for the White House Boys, said the school segregated white and black inmates and that the remains are located where black inmates were held. He suspects there is another white cemetery that hasn’t been discovered.
“I think that there are at least 100 more bodies up there,” he said. “At some point they are going to find more bodies, I’m dead certain of that. There has to be a white graveyard on the white side.”
Among those that have pushed to allow USF to conduct the research are Florida’s Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
“My goal all along has been to help bring closure to the families who lost loved ones at Dozier. I feel great relief that the work to identify human remains is now underway,” Bondi said through a spokeswoman.
The holiday weekend’s initial work is meant to ensure that the process works smoothly before researchers return to the site. The remains will be brought to Tampa to be studied. DNA obtained will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for analysis. The hope is that it can be matched to relatives. Ten families have contacted researchers in hopes of identifying relatives that might be buried at Dozier.
If matches are found, remains will be returned to the families.
(Photo: University of South Florida assistant professor Dr. Erin Kimmerle hugs Elmore Bryant on the site of the Boot Hill cemetery. AP)
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This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (10/15-10/21)
31 photos Launch gallery
1. Just a NY girl with BIG dreams....
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2. HAPPY CHILDREN=QUALITY PARENTING. We don't always see eye to eye on everything and that's normal. We're human beings. But we come together and do it right for what's important, the kids. We are not enemies, we are parents. And we are parents 1st. S/O to @monyettashaw for making Mason's bday memorable. S/O to @itscrystalsmith at home taking care of our other lil' Prince. ❤️❤️❤️ THIS IS WHAT CO-PARENTING LOOKS LIKE. #Blessed #Happy #AboveTheDrama #BiggerThanUs
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3. So happy to finally be able to share with you all that I’m the new Global Brand Ambassador for @Revlon! Follow my day on RevlonSnaps. Yay! Choose Love, Everybody! #RevlonXCiara #chooselove #ad
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4. Glam on point!!!@makeupbymotoko & @shaylinjoneshair #easybreezy @lifetimetv #beachesmovie #january2017 😘
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5. ✨True love ✨📸: @jessiemarrerophotography
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7. Today was not easy..but by the grace of God we all got through it. Words cannot express our gratitude for all of your Prayers, Positive thoughts and Support for us throughout the years. Tommy will be missed but most certainly never forgotten...And PLEASE don't ask "Where's Martin?.." he was there too...just not in this picture. Lol! God bless you all.. #LoveConquersAll #MartinShow
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9. West coast get ready for #RockyHorror. I will be live tweeting again. #letsdothetimewarpagain
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10. #THEKEYS pre order yours now ... Available everywhere #NOV22 #WeTheBest 🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑🔑
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11. We about to ROCK at #KCABlackBall!! All for our life-changing effort to end 🌎 AIDS.
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12. Today's #SNAPJACK is brought to you by @yazzthegreatest 😂😂😂💋💋💋
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13. Damn girl you kinda old to be headed to the Go Go. You coming in at the age they leaving. LMAO
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14. Daddy daycare B-Boxin with @acewellstucker @shopraisingace
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15. #FBF Naviyd & URV "LIL MONSTERS"
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16. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ONE OF THE BIGGEST LEGENDS IN OUR HIPHOP HISTORY! @snoopdogg CONTINUED BLESSING AND LOVE FAMILY!!!!! REAL OG!
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17. Thank you for a beautiful night VSU! Let's do it again! #HOMECOMING
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18. Had a great time this morning with my familia Erica, Griff & Truth!!
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19. Check out my interview on @essence facebook live. #inmyownwords #nycpromo #day2
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20. #She💋 #tbt #TheCoveAtTheAtlantis #DawgPawsAndAll
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21. Bae #retailtherapy
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22. Why me and @coryhardrict got the same pose... and notee... new mouth #naked
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23. When my husband is my personal 'hype-man'! it kills me every time! 💜😂 #WHATNOW #lostfiles📷
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24. Diggy Simmons
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25. Hand full of @jacquieaiche 💙💎💍 @esnail_la 💅🏾
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26. SuperSoulers! You can watch my interview with Carl Lentz live from my Facebook page, tomorrow at 11a ET| 8a PT. #SuperSoulSunday
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27. 💋 .. When the friendship is easy like Sunday morning. ☀️
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28. Sunday mornings are the best........... hugs and cuddles with my angel
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29. #huggar16 #hellohuggars
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30. My gym is everywhere!.. #RnBMoney #TheGeneral 📸: @twelvepastseven
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31. Nothing I would rather be doing... Rocko setting up our movie, Romelō working on a puzzle & Laiyah singing and sharing all she's learning at school... I'm so grateful for the joy they've brought into my life ... Praying for peace , joy & love in the home of EVERY family ♥️ #HeadScarfPJSunday LOL 😂
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