MARIANNA — A state task force on Wednesday began an emotional debate about how to commemorate the victims of abuse and brutality at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and what to do with the unidentified remains of youths who died at the shuttered reform school.
“The mission and goals of this task force are different and sensitive from most other task forces,” Secretary of State Ken Detzner told the nine-member panel, which held its first meeting in Marianna, near the site of the 1,400-acre Dozier property in Jackson County.
Detzner said the task force has been directed by the Legislature to develop recommendations by Oct. 1 on the creation of a memorial to honor the victims of the reform school, which operated from 1900 to 2011, as well as designating a permanent burial site for victims whose bodies were unidentified or unclaimed.
An investigation led by University of South Florida researchers found 51 sets of remains in an unmarked graveyard known as Boot Hill Burial Ground at the Dozier facility, including victims of a 1914 dormitory fire. USF anthropologists identified 21 of the sets of remains through DNA and other methods.
The law that created the task force also provided $7,500 for each family for funeral and reburial costs if they claimed the remains of victims.
But in its initial meeting, the task force found itself at odds over the issue of whether the memorial and the permanent burial site should be at the former Dozier reform school or elsewhere in the state.
Eric Hill, a Jackson County commissioner who serves on the task force, said the permanent burial site and memorial would receive greater exposure if it was in a more populated area of the state, rather than the rural Panhandle county.
“I think the location would be best fit with a larger population,” Hill said.
He was supported by Jerry Cooper, who was sent to Dozier as a runaway teen and who leads a group of “White House Boys,” an organization named for a building where youths said they were beaten and abused.
“I see no reason, whatsoever, to reinter these people, these children, back on this property,” Cooper said. “As far as I am concerned, it would be only adding insult to injury.”
Dale Landry, representing the Florida NAACP, said his civil rights organization was unanimous in believing that the memorial should be at the former reform school.
“Our biggest fear is that once you let it go, it will be forgotten,” Landry said, adding the goal should be to “repurpose that land and make it sacred.”
Stephen Britt, whose uncle died at Dozier in 1946, strongly objected to the idea of not having a memorial and permanent burial in Jackson County.
“They want it to be totally eliminated. They don’t want any reference of it being here. They are ashamed, but they shouldn’t be,” Britt said. “They didn’t commit those crimes. Their ancestors did, but they didn’t.”
Britt, at one point, called the proceeding “a farce,” but later apologized for his outburst, while adding “you must understand this is extremely personal to me.”
“I think everyone understands how emotional this is,” said Timothy Parsons, head of the state Division of Historical Resources and chairman of the task force. “And I think we all feel really strongly about our responsibilities.”
David Jackson, a Florida A&M University history professor who was appointed as a non-voting adviser to the task force, said it would be “very unusual” to not have a memorial at the site of the former reform school.
“It gives us an opportunity to continue to teach people for generations to come about what’s right, what’s wrong, what should not have occurred so we won’t repeat those things going forward,” he said.
The task force agreed to wait until its Aug. 19 meeting to begin voting on proposals for creating a memorial and designating a permanent burial site for the unidentified or unclaimed Dozier victims.
The task force’s Oct. 1 report will be forwarded to the Department of State, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet.