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USF Conference Marks 100th Anniversary of Dozier School Fire

Nov 17, 2014

13-year-old Joseph Wetherbee, who died in a dormitory fire at the Florida Industrial School for Boys (later Dozier School for Boys) on November 18, 1914. Wetherbee's family members are expected to attend a conference marking the 100th anniversary of the fire Tuesday at USF.
Credit Wetherbee family, courtesy USF Dept. of Anthropology

On November 18, 1914, a fire in a dormitory at what was then the Florida Industrial School for Boys is believed to have killed eight students and two staff members.

It turns out that those were among the first of an untold number of deaths at what became the Dozier School for Boys.

The reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna was finally closed in 2011 after decades of alleged abuse and violence perpetrated against students.

University of South Florida researchers have been trying to identify a number of students buried in unmarked graves on the site.

And now, USF will host a conference Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the fire, which was one of the earliest signs of trouble at Dozier.

“This led to increased public focus on the school and calls to fix responsibility,” Associate Professor of Anthropology Antoinette Jackson said. “So the purpose of the conference is to remember that tragic event and to discuss impact and implications today.”

The conference will tackle a number of topics, including the USF investigation of the 1914 fire and the researchers’ ongoing efforts to identify human remains exhumed from unmarked graves on school grounds last year.  

Jackson said a number of the victims of the fire were among those remains, and researchers will discuss their identities at the conference.

In addition, there are panels on how the media and other advocacy groups have tried to keep a spotlight shined on Dozier.

“We want to reflect the amount of public involvement that has gone into the research specifically currently and into the research that has gone on and the advocacy work that has gone on over the course of these last 100 years,” Jackson said.

She singled out the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, the NAACP and a number of groups of former students for their ongoing efforts.

Dr. Michael Blakey, a Humanities Professor at the College of William & Mary will deliver the keynote address at 1 p.m. He’s served as Director of the African Burial Ground Project, a historic site in Lower Manhattan where both free and enslaved Africans were buried in the 1700’s.

"It (the site) has correlations between how you connect with the public on finding bodies and how to commemorate those people who died and to connect that with the community, and Dr. Blakey did a lot of work in that regard with the African Burial Ground Project,” Jackson said.

There will also be a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. recognizing former students and deceased students' family members, as well as a candlelight service

The event is open to the public and runs all day Tuesday, starting at 9 a.m. in Room 3707 Marshall Student Center on the USF Tampa campus. For registration information, as well as a schedule of events, visit http://forensics.usf.edu/dozier/.

Thomas Varnadoe (right) in an undated family photo. Varnadoe died in 1934 at the age of 13 at the Dozier Reform School for Boys.
Credit Lucielle Salomon / WUSF 89.7 News

Also, one of the former students whose body was exhumed from Dozier school grounds and identified through a DNA sample will be reburied next week.

The Lakeland Ledger reports the remains of 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe will be buried at Hopewell Memorial Gardens in Plant City November 24. He’ll be buried next to his brother, Hubert, who was sent with him to Dozier in 1934.

Varnadoe died under mysterious circumstances at Dozier five weeks after arriving at the reform school. His nephew Glen was one of the people who got USF researchers involved in the investigation of Dozier.

A second set of remains identified at the same time as Varnadoe, those of Lakeland resident Earl Wilson, have not been turned over to his family yet. However, Wilson’s family plans to eventually bury him at Lakeland’s Oak Hill Cemetery next to his brother Jimmy Lee.

The first set of Dozier remains identified, those of George Owen Smith, was reburied this past September at an Auburndale cemetery next to his parents.