Graves Found At Reform School: 50 Unmarked Graves, 98 Deaths At The Dozier School

By Mo Mozuch on December 11, 2012 2:28 PM EST

Dozier School for Boys
The White House Boys use images like this one to tell the brutal story of the Dozier School on their website thewhitehouseboysonline.com. (Photo: Florida State University)

University of South Florida anthropologists have unearthed a total of 50 unmarked graves at The Dozier School for Boys in Mariana, Fla. Graves found at the reform school date back as far as 1914. In their official report, USF anthropologists stated that "records indicate that 45 individuals were buried on the school grounds between the years 1914-1952, 31 bodies were shipped to other locations for burial, and 22 cases do not have recorded burial locations."

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Graves found at the reform school were dug for boys who were likely subject to physical abuse and had succumb to a variety of complications. Researchers also noticed a correlation between boys who died and boys who tried to escape, as well as a high mortality rate among boys in their first three months at the school.

"Infectious disease, fires, physical trauma, and drowning are the most common recorded causes of death when a cause of death is recorded," the report states. "Other mortality patterns show trends among the boys that died including deaths following attempted escapes from the school, a high number of boys who died within the first three months of being remanded to the school and inconsistency among those who were issued death certificates."

"We found nearly twice as many burials as were thought to exist," USF Team Leader Erin Kimmerle told The Global Dispatch. She also noted that there was a racial component present in the findings. "The majority of boys committed to the school and that died there were African American."

She cited the role of segregation as the primary explanation for the higher mortality rate among African-American boys at the school. Dr. Kimmerle also spoke to local TV station WTSP and dismissed notions of a conspiracy.

"I don't want to say that it was a cover-up. I think there was sloppy bookkeeping, I think that there were efforts throughout its history where they did try to project a certain image," she said.

Graves found at the reform school create an image already being crafted by former tenants of Dozier. Known as 'The White House Boys,' a group of men who were subjected to abuses there began speaking out about conditions at the Dozier School. There are around 300 men in the group, almost all of whom spent time in the Dozier School in the '50s and '60s. Some graves found at the reform school date to this time period. The name 'White House Boys' refers to a white house on school grounds where boys were taken to receive seemingly random beatings. One of the 'White House Boys,' Jerry Cooper, spoke to NPR in October about his time there.

"You didn't know when it was coming," said Cooper, who was sent to the school at 16 for car theft. "These were not spankings. These were beatings, brutal beatings."

Cooper's first beating occurred in the 'white house.' He was rousted from bed around 2 a.m. and taken to the 'white house' where he was tied to a bed and beaten with a leather strap until he passed out. A boy in an adjacent room told Cooper the next day he counted 135 lashes.

Cooper acknowledges that many of the boys were troublemakers, but none deserving of the brutality meted out by the staff. The graves found at the reform school included boys who were orphans and sent to Dozier because they were guilty of the crime of having no where to go.

"We weren't bad kids. We might have needed help in some respect. But that wasn't the place to find it," Cooper told NPR.

Although former Florida Governor Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into the allegations, the findings concluded there wasn't enough evidence to support the group's claims of abuse.  Another White House Boy, Roger Kiser, told NPR that "it all boils down to civil liability" and that the Florida government doesn't want any hard evidence that could open it up to potential lawsuits.

The graves found at the reform school could change all that.

Thomas Varnadoe died under suspicious circumstances while at the school in 1934. He was 13-years-old. The Dozier School provided no information on how he died or where he was buried. Both facts still upset his family.

"The fact that his death certificate reflects no autopsy and no undertaker was suspicious," Glen Varnadoe, Thomas Varnadoe's nephew told WTSP on Monday. The Varnadoe family has filed a lawsuit and wants to exhume Thomas' body from the graves found at the reform school so they can bury him alongside his mother.

The Dozier School for Boys was shut down by state officials in 2011. It was called the Florida State Reform School when it opened in 1900, before changing its name to the Florida School for Boys and then The Dozier School for Boys. 

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