For years, almost no one at the Dozier School even knew about the burial ground in a clearing in the woods on the edge of campus. It was forbidden territory. The soil here, churned in places by tiny ants, holds more than the remains of little boys. Only now is it starting to give up its dark secrets: horror stories of state-sanctioned barbarism, including flogging, sexual assault and, possibly, murder.
That the Arthur G Dozier School – a borstal for delinquent boys founded in 1900 – was not a gentle place was well-established. Boys as young as six were chained to walls, lashings with a leather strap were frequent and, in the early decades, children endured enforced labour, making bricks and working printing presses. When it was closed in 2011, it had already been the subject of separate federal and state investigations.
But, as suspicions deepen about how the boys in the burial ground died, pressure is growing again on the state to shine new light into the darkest days of the school in Marianna, a Florida Panhandle town that once was a bastion of the KKK and the site of the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal. The pressure is coming from some of the school’s survivors, from relatives of boys who died here, and from Florida’s top US Senator, Bill Nelson.
“Where there is smoke, there is fire,” Senator Nelson declared last month, calling on the state to delay plans to sell off the 1,400 acres occupied by the old school so that a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida can complete a project begun last year to comb the campus for more graves. He wants any bodies found exhumed, identified and returned to the families they came from.
So far, the team, led by Erin Kimmerle, has focused its work around the once-secret cemetery. It knows that as many as 98 boys died at the school between 1914 and 1973. Since starting last year, Professor Kimmerle has found 19 previously undiscovered graves in addition to the 31 marked by steel-pipe crosses. That means 50 graves so far. Forty-eight have yet to be located, assuming graves were dug for each body.
“It’s more than we anticipated,” she says. “Our purpose is to explain who these children were, what happened to them and to understand what the story is that should be told.” The official stance – that all the children died from accidents, such as fires and drownings, or natural causes – does not impress her. She cites the case of one child, Billy Jackson, whose cause of death was listed as kidney failure. There is a record of his being beaten two weeks earlier and admitted to hospital. “Common sense”, she asserts, says he died from the beating.
The place of Dozier in Florida’s history is already set and it’s a shameful one. That is thanks in part to a group of Dozier survivors who call themselves the “White House Boys” because that was the colour of the small building where the floggings used to take place. A decade ago, they began finding one another by email and social networks and sharing their painful memories. In a book that Roger Dean Kiser eventually wrote about his time at the school – The White House Boys: an American Tragedy – he called it a “concentration camp for little boys”.
Even now, he recalls the wardens with fear, including the one-armed Troy Tidwell, who, he says, beat him on his first day. “They were just totally out of control up there,” he said. “The ones that got the most beating were the 11-year-olds. They liked to beat the little ones because they didn’t have to be afraid of them coming back after them with a brick in the hands. The older the boys, the less beatings they got.”