A shirt button, a plaque saying “at rest” and a stone marble found in what’s believed to have been the coffin of a 6-year-old boy are just some of the almost ten thousand artifacts USF researchers have removed from 55 graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.
Those items - along with hundreds of coffin nails also recovered there - might help investigators identify the bodies buried in the school’s mysterious Boot Hill cemetery and elsewhere on the site.
"One of the ways that we can do that through the style of the nail and the nail head and the style of other artifacts is to identify where they were made and the range of dates in which those particular items were produced," said Christian Wells, USF associate producer of anthropology. "That can help us narrow down this list of 55 individuals into much smaller and more manageable groups that we can then use DNA and other kinds of analysis to identify specifically who the individuals were.”
The researchers, led by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle, have been investigating the reform school for over two years.
While 31 small, white crosses dotted the cemetery and school records indicated a similar number of deaths, ground-penetrating radar sweeps and other work led the team to believe 50 bodies would be found there and in surrounding areas. However, Kimmerle said excavation work late last year found remains in 55 graves.
"This is precisely why excavation was necessary: The only way to clearly establish the facts about the deaths and burials at the school is to follow scientific process, which we have been using, and as you can see, that process is yielding important new information," Kimmerle said at a news conference last week.
That information only leads to more questions.
“At this time, we know very little about the burials and the children buried within, in terms of who is specifically buried there, their ages or ancestry, nor the timing and circumstances of their death," Kimmerle said.
Those circumstances remain the stuff of nightmares. Many former Dozier students allege decades of abuse and even death at the hands of staff members.
“They would just tell us that the guys went home in the middle of the night or their parents come and got them," said Richard Huntly, a student at Dozier from 1957 to 1959. "We knew that was not so and we know that a lot more graves are there." (more on that in a moment)
Huntly is a member of the group “The Black Boys at Dozier Reform School,” which is pushing for what they say is the truth about what happened there to come out. He spoke of how officials once told students that a classmate had escaped from Dozier.
“And they told me, say, ‘Well you know, Huntly, guess what? He got away. He got away!’ and everybody was ‘Hooray, hooray!’' Huntly said. "I got a phone call about a year ago when we first started this project, and told me, said ‘Guess what?’ There wasn’t but one guy ran on record that year, and that guy’s name never showed up, it showed up on the missing list, he didn’t get away."
Ovell Krell believes her brother, George Owen Smith, suffered a similar fate. He is believed to have died at Dozier in 1941 at the age of 14, but his body has never been found.
"I feel like he is maybe there because I think in all the years following that, somehow, he would have found his way home, and since he never did, then he probably is there," Krell told reporters.
She hopes her family’s lifetime search for answers might soon come to an end.
"Well, it would be the answer to many long years of hopes and prayers, yes, and it would give me a chance to, if I could get his remains, to put them between my mother and daddy in their cemetery plot in Auburndale and I feel like they would know he was there," Krell said.
The researchers will soon return to Dozier to continue to look for more graves, as former students and Marianna residents have told stories for years about multiple burial sites on campus.
Meanwhile, bone and tooth samples from the recovered remains are being sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center for DNA testing. Researchers also continue working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to take DNA samples from families of former Dozier students to match with remains.
At last week’s news conference, Kimmerle released a list of 42 of those students whose families haven’t been found yet.
“Those are families that we’re still looking for and that’s the information that we know about the boy, who the guardian was, in most cases it’s a parent but sometimes it’s an aunt or uncle, and essentially their last known address or the county which they came from," Kimmerle said.
"So our hope is that it will elicit some people to come forward who may be related or if there are web sleuths that are out there and genealogy buffs who can lend a hand, then we appreciate that too," she added.
"It’s something that we have genealogists working on and are working with NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) and the Sheriff’s Office, but the more help that we can get from the public, then the faster that process will go.”
Because it's a process that Kimmerle says is about providing closure.
This project has always been about fulfilling a fundamental human right for families, who like all of us, have a right to know what happened to their loved ones and are entitled to bury their relatives in a manner in which they deem proper,” she said.