TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The state of Florida is moving to take an honest look at a dark chapter in its history by allowing University of South Florida researchers to exhume bodies from the former, state-run Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously on Tuesday to grant a permit to USF archaeologists so they can remove remains from the school's property, try to identify them and reunite them with families.
It's hoped the work will also reveal the cause of death for those buried in an old cemetery on the grounds of the state-owned property.
State records list 31 graves there, but USF researchers have uncovered about 50 more unmarked graves.
The crowd in the Cabinet room stood up and applauded following the vote as some former Dozier students wiped away tears. They came there to watch history unfold as the state of Florida prepares to examine a painful part of its history.
"We are accepting today with our vote our responsibility that wherever it takes us, whatever is necessary, that we accomplish the goals laid out in the endeavor," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
Former Dozier students accuse state guards of torture, rape and murder at the school, which closed in 2011. They hope exhuming bodies will solve longstanding questions about mysterious deaths at the school during the 20th Century.
Former Dozier student Richard Huntley, who lived at the school from 1957 to 1959, was overcome with emotion after the Cabinet approved the permit.
"I've been screaming out of a hole for help. Just throw me a rope, somebody help. Today I caught that rope. Today somebody pulled us up out of that hole and I thank God. I'm happy in my heart. I'm really happy in my heart. They say when a grown man cries, it's something that's really touched him. Today I was touched."
Huntley, who is the president of a group called "Black Boys at Dozier Reform School," became emotional as he recalled all the people who helped him over the years, not only on this effort to uncover the truth at Dozier, but also those who helped him in life.
"I thank my children. I thank my two daughters, Sabrina and Regina, helped me learn how to read. I thank them. Marianna didn't do nothing for us. Marianna made peons out of us. Marianna made slaves out of us."
Johnny Lee Gaddy, who lived at Dozier in 1957, said he had dreamed about this day, but never really expected it to happen.
"Makes me feel good. There is a God and justice prevails today for us and I'm glad to see that happen."
John Bonner lived at Dozier from 1967 to 1969. He said the Cabinet's vote shows there are some good people in government who care about children.
"Today Gov. Scott is the best governor in the United States and this Cabinet as well, Ms. Pam Bondi, all worked so hard to make something happen that is long overdue and I thank God for all the help and I thank all the people that support this."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said Florida could no longer ignore its history at the Dozier School for Boys.
"We have to look at our history. We have to go back and we know there are unmarked graves currently on that property that deserve a proper burial. It's the right thing to do."
Bondi had joined with USF researchers previously to try to get permission to exhume bodies at Dozier, but their efforts were rejected first by a judge and then the Florida Department of State.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wondered why the Department of State was unable to grant the year-long land use agreement to USF, but said he was delighted the Cabinet could make it happen.
"In a state as old as Florida is, we're going to have chapters in our history that we're more proud of than others. But there is no shame is searching for the truth and the families of the victims who want closure, who want answers deserve those things."