MARIANNA, Fla. -- Excavations at the Dozier School for Boys have begun after decades of questions surrounding missing children and unmarked graves. University of South Florida researchers say the first remains were uncovered in a burial shaft outside of the marked cemetery at the site.
Shovels and picks are the tools of choice to begin the excavations. Researchers are starting with the areas they found anomalies indicating burial shafts.
"[Working] in an area that contains four to six burial shafts, we are working in and around one burial shaft right now to clearly delineate it to get our boundary," said Dr. Christian Wells, with the University of South Florida.
Researchers say they've found evidence of burial hardware, meaning pieces of coffins.
Aside from the 31 crosses at the Dozier cemetery site, 19 other grave shafts have been identified. USF says records show 84 boys died at the institution between 1911 and 1973.
"We approached this with the goal to identify everyone. That's our objective, we know that realistically that won't happen. In some cases in the records it said a colored boy died; it never provided a name so the whole process is contingent on knowing who you're looking for," said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, University of South Florida.
It's a happy yet sad day for Roger Kiser. He was 13 when he attended the school in the 1950s.
"I know they are going to find a little bit of good out there and they are going to find a whole lot of bad out there," said Kiser.
Kiser remembers the beatings in the White House.
"When these boys would come from the White House they were totally bloody I mean they had to be put in the shower and peel their clothes off cause they were stuck to their body," said Kiser.
John Bonner says he attended the Dozier school when he was 14-years-old. He says he was punched, choked, and beaten in the White House four times.
"I would go as far as to say slavery. This more was a work concentrated camp opposed to teaching young boys how to be reformed. There was no education given to us," said Bonner.
Huel Gandy is another survivor and says the institution meant to reform, actually destroyed lives.
"It made me scared to death of pain and I've been that way all my life. If I thought somebody was going to hurt me, they didn't get a chance, I'd hurt them first," said Gandy.
There are families waiting to find out if their missing loved ones were buried at the site. It might bring closure to them. But for Kiser, he says it's a chance to prove the survivors are not liars and are telling the truth about what happened in the White House.
"If there was ever a concentration camp and I hate to use that term because of Germany, but if are there was ever a concentration camp in the United States of America, this is that place," added Kiser.
The team plans to keep working through Tuesday. All of the remains found will go through DNA testing and examination. Those identified will be returned to their families, unidentified remains will be reburied under an identifying number leaving hope that one day they might also be identified.
First Coast News