Photo by University of South Florida Department of Anthropology via WUSF
The remains of dozens of boys who were victims of beatings and abuse at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys should be reinterred in Tallahassee, the city where lawmakers and governors were responsible for the now-closed reform school, a state task force decided Friday.
The task force also decided to recommend creating memorials to the Dozier victims in both Tallahassee and Jackson County, the Panhandle community where the reform school operated from 1900 to 2011.
After the school closed and boys who were held at the facility began to tell stories of abuse and sexual assault, a team led by University of South Florida researchers found 51 sets of remains in an unmarked graveyard known as the Boot Hill Burial Ground at the 1,400-acre Dozier property. University anthropologists identified some of the remains through DNA and other methods.
The Legislature this year created the task force to decide what to do with unidentified or unclaimed remains and how to commemorate the victims. The law also authorized funeral payments to families who claimed Dozier victims.
The final decisions on reinterring remains, which are now being held at the University of South Florida, and the memorials will be made by Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet, as well as the Legislature.
Friday's debate during a five-hour hearing, held a few miles from the Dozier site, was sometimes raw and emotional, although the panel eventually reached a consensus on the recommendations.
Dale Landry, a task force member representing the Florida NAACP, said the state capital was the proper place to bury the Dozier boys because it was also the city where officials were responsible for creating the reform school and overseeing it.
Landry originally suggested the reinterment, which may take the form of a mausoleum or a cemetery, should be on the state Capitol grounds, noting there are nearby memorials for the Vietnam and Korean wars.
"It was the people in that building that housed the Legislature and the governor that allowed that foolishness to happen over here in Marianna," Landry said, adding it would be a good idea for officials to walk by the site asking, "what am I doing today to protect Florida's children."
"They are still wards of the state of Florida, and Florida has a responsibility," he said.
But the panel modified the recommendation to designate Tallahassee as the location, leaving it to lawmakers and other state officials to decide exactly where the remains should be reinterred. A Tallahassee cemetery owner has offered a site on the north side of the city.
Suggestions to reinter the bodies in Jackson County, neighboring Gadsden County and Tampa were rejected by the panel.
Many members of the "White House Boys" group, which was named after a Dozier building where beatings and other abuse occurred, strongly opposed reinterring the victims' remains back on the grounds of the reform school.
Bob Baxter, a Gainesville resident who was at Dozier from 1950 to 1951, said the remains should never be returned to Dozier, remembering how the bodies of the boys were treated at the Boot Hill burial ground.
"It wasn't a cemetery. It was a damn dump site," he said, adding returning the boys' bodies would be like "killing them again."
Jerry Cooper, a task-force member who was sent to Dozier as a runaway teen and leads the White House Boys group, said the overwhelming majority of his group wants to see the White House demolished.
"Most of the men feel it would be a sore that would fester and fester over the years" if it remains, Cooper said. "We would like to see the building come down, and we would like to be present."
But Timothy Parsons, head of the state Division of Historical Resources and chairman of the task force, said it was outside the panel's jurisdiction to make recommendations about what should happen to buildings at the Dozier site.
The task force also unanimously agreed to create memorials in Tallahassee and Jackson County to remember the boys who lived and died at Dozier, as well as victims, including two staff members, who died in a 1914 dormitory fire at the facility.
The panel left the decisions on the design and location of the memorials to lawmakers and the governor and Cabinet.
The decisions on reinterment and memorials won the support of Marianna and Jackson County officials who were members of the task force. Local officials have been pushing the state for the ability to develop some or all of the former Dozier site to help the community's economy.