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Florida school exhumations revive ghosts of a grisly past

Relatives and survivors wait as researchers excavate the grounds in search of graves. Dozens are believed to have died at the school for troubled boys.

September 02, 2013|By Benjamin Mueller
  • A grave is exhumed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., where dozens are believed to have died over the years.
A grave is exhumed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.,… (Edmund D. Fountain / Tampa…)

The men remember a manicured campus stained by the blood of teenage boys. They remember the explosion of the leather strap — 30 lashes, 50 lashes, more than 100 — and the bloody classroom chairs they scrubbed down later.

For more than a century, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna took in damaged children and turned out shattered men.

The state closed the school in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department documented some of the abuse. But the sprawling campus may still be hiding horrors.

On Saturday, researchers began excavating the grounds in search of graves. Records show that 96 boys died at the school between 1914 and 1973. Among them were 20 who died from influenza and pneumonia and eight who burned to death in a locked dormitory.

Just how many bodies are buried there is unclear. A team of researchers from the University of South Florida used ground-penetrating radar last year to detect 50 bodies. But that was 19 more than officially accounted for. The excavations, which continue until Tuesday, promise to rewrite patchy records and have drawn attention from across the state.

Among those waiting to see what the work reveals are three people with special ties to the school: Jerry Cooper, who watched a classmate die; Erin Kimmerle, who conducts research on society's most vulnerable; and Ovell Krell, who wants Florida, after all these years, to let her bury her brother.

A young witness

At 2 a.m. one night in 1960, a 15-year-old quarterback for the Dozier School for Boys football team was sleeping in Roosevelt Cottage when two men woke him up. They wanted information about a boy who had fled the school, a "runner."

Soon, Jerry Cooper was being dragged in his nightgown to the White House, a small concrete chamber where boys were beaten. A leather strap sliced through the dank air and slashed his back. Later, Cooper would remove pieces of nightgown from his torn, purple skin. A boy in another room counted 135 lashes.

"They thought this would heal some troubled boys," said Cooper, now 68. "But it turned a lot of men into monsters." He still battles anger problems that led to an arrest record nearly 40 assaults long.

In August, Cooper drove 500 miles from his home in Coral Gables to Tallahassee, where he watched Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet vote unanimously to allow researchers to dig on school grounds.

The work may turn up a friend, Edgar Elton, who stopped breathing feet away from Cooper during a football practice. Elton had asthma and told Cooper that instructors forced him to practice even though a doctor's note prohibited him from playing.

Cooper, who is white, says he knows only half of what happened at the school. White and black students were segregated until 1968, heirs to a history of discrimination in Marianna that some trace to a Civil War victory there by black Union soldiers.

A black student and friend of Cooper, Johnnie Walthour, recalled being asked to dig a grave for a friend who was beaten to death. They made Walthour pull plows "just like a mule," he said.

That kind of abuse wasn't uncommon in parts of northern Florida well into the 1900s, Cooper said. In 1934, residents of Marianna famously lynched a black farmhand, Claude Neal, who was suspected of killing a white woman.

Cooper hopes the exhumation offers victims' families closure. But he's just as eager to unearth a period of racial violence he says too many have ignored.

"It's gonna get nasty."

A civil rights story

Erin Kimmerle reads history in buried bones. A forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, she's studied the aftermath of atrocities in Nigeria and Kosovo.

Now the leader of the university's excavation team, Kimmerle is digging for more than forensic evidence; she also wants people to remember how Florida once discarded its boys.

"Cemeteries are a reflection of who we are as a society," she said. And criminal justice in Florida, she said, was conducted as a for-profit operation.

Until 1923, Florida practiced the convict lease system, an arrangement with origins in the Reconstruction-era South that provided largely black prisoner labor to private bosses for a fee. "It's been described as modern-day slavery," Kimmerle said.

The school sold 20,000 bricks a day, all produced by students. In 1921, one superintendent had students cut timber on his private land, then sold the timber to the school for over $9,000.

Kimmerle said it's easy to forget an era when the state could handle criminals for profit and hide its bodies. "To be buried in unmarked graves and lost to time and place doesn't register to most of us."

And yet it happened, one chapter in a longer-running drama. "This is a story of civil rights," she said.

A sister's grief

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