At Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a notoriously brutal juvenile reform school in the panhandle town of Marianna, workers doing cleanup after Hurricane Michael uncovered 27 “anomalies” that could be possible graves, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Students and researchers from the University of Southern Florida announced in 2014 that they had found the remains of 24 more boys in the school’s cemetery than were officially recorded by the state.
The excavation project prompted a group of black men who were confined at Dozier in the 1950s and 1960s to return to Marianna to revisit the space and grapple with their memories of being beaten and forced to work in the fields at the racially segregated school. Richard Huntly, who spent two years at the school from age 11 to 13, said that for black boys at Dozier, “It was kind of like slavery.”
Florida’s oldest reform school, Dozier was open from 1900 to 2011, when the state closed it in the midst of a Justice Department investigation into abusive and dangerous conditions. The Tampa Bay Times and other newspapers have reported on the horrific, unrelenting abuse and neglect of boys held at the school, many of whom remember being beaten bloody with a weighted leather strap and seeing several graveyards on the 1400-acre rural campus.
Bryant Middleton of Fort Walton Beach, who was sent to the school for “incorrigibility” in 1959, told the Tampa Bay Times that he was not surprised by the recent discoveries. He said:
We’ve been trying to tell the state of Florida that there’s more bodies out there for a long time. I’m in possession of a list of 130 some odd boys who died at the school or disappeared and whose last known resting place we can’t find.
The Times reported that a subcontractor, New South Associates, used ground-penetrating radar to survey 1.78 acres and found 27 “anomalies.” In a report to the Department of Environmental Protection, New South said it took a “liberal approach” to interpreting the data. “If an anomaly had any of the features typically used to identify graves” — like size, shape, depth — “it was interpreted as a possible grave.”
The possible graves are not arranged in an obvious pattern as expected in a formal cemetery. “This randomness might be expected in a clandestine or informal cemetery, where graves were excavated haphazardly and left unmarked,” the report says.
Careful excavation will be required to determine whether the anomalies are, in fact, graves. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, directed state agencies to work with Jackson County officials to determine how to move forward. Last year, the Dozier property was turned over to the county, which plans to build a distribution and manufacturing center and a training center for people with autism at the site.