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Florida officials today voted to reopen a dark chapter in the state's history. Governor Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to allow researchers to exhume some 90 unmarked graves at a state-run reform school. The Dozier School for Boys was closed two years ago, but over its 100-year history, it was notorious for physical abuse. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, the hope is that today's decision will unearth answers about the children who died there and why.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Over the last five years, former residents of the Dozier School started speaking out about the harsh treatment and physical abuse they received there. More than 300 men, many now in their 70s and 80s, formed a group called the White House Boys, named for a small white building on the school grounds where boys were beaten.
Last weekend, Johnny Lee Gaddy was one of a group of former African-American residents who visited the school grounds. Gaddy said guards used a leather strap and insisted the boys call them beatings, not spankings.
JOHNNY LEE GADDY: The first time I got hit, I had never been hit like that before in my life. I said, my god, what's happening here?
ALLEN: Gaddy was just 11 years old when he was sent to Dozier in 1957. He recalled receiving 35 to 40 blows that left him bloody. Other boys, he said, received far worse treatment. He remembers seeing one boy, a runaway, beaten so badly that Gaddy believes he died.
GADDY: They said, we've taken him home. We didn't see the guy no more. We know that that guy didn't go home. They killed him. He was beaten to death when he left us. You didn't leave this place.
ALLEN: In recent years, books and news accounts drew attention to the Dozier School's sordid history, but many leaders seemed content to allow that chapter of the state's history to remain closed. Researchers from the University of South Florida, however, received permission to begin an investigation and soon found 90 unmarked graves on school grounds, dozens more than previously known.
Backed by relatives of boys who died there, the researchers asked the state for permission to exhume the bodies so remains can be identified and returned to their families. At first, the administration of Governor Rick Scott refused, but after weeks of pressure, today the governor brought it up for a vote at his cabinet meeting.
GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: Any comments or objections? Hearing none, the motion carries.
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JERRY COOPER: I'm going to be honest with you. When I heard the Yeas all the way across the board, I felt like a ton of weight has been lifted off of my heart.
ALLEN: White House Boy Jerry Cooper traveled from his home in Cape Coral to be in Tallahassee for today's vote. Although Governor Scott had appeared reluctant, other members of the cabinet, led by Attorney General Pam Bondi, supported the researchers. Another cabinet member, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, said the families of the boys who died there deserve answers.
SECRETARY ADAM PUTNAM: It is not a judgment or an indictment whatsoever on the community that hosted this state facility. This was a state facility that was ignored for too long by state officials.
ALLEN: With today's vote, a team from the University of South Florida will soon begin exhuming remains at the old Dozier School. Since last year, the researchers, led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, have used ground-penetrating radar to survey a burial ground at the school known as Boot Hill. Kimmerle says some of the graves found by the team were in a wooded area and some under a nearby road.
ERIN KIMMERLE: You know, these graves and individuals were never in marked plots from the beginning and there were never good records about who was there, so it's not a cemetery in the conventional sense.
ALLEN: While Kimmerle and her team have been making plans for the exhumations, they've also been carrying out other work that may raise new questions. The Dozier School was segregated. The burial ground where Kimmerle will be working is on what was the black side of the school grounds. Many of the White House Boys say they believe there is another burial area on the white side.
Along with the 90 found so far, Kimmerle believes there may be many more unmarked graves at the school yet to be discovered. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.