Sunday, August 4, 2013

Statement on Dozier School Cemetery (August 5, 2013)

Memorial Crosses at Dozier School Cemetery
Barring something unknown to me, this will be my last public comment on the Dozier School Cemetery issue.  I am tired and in poor health and prefer to concentrate on other things right now, but since a reporter badgered me last night by asking the same question over 100 times (in different ways) and still not getting me to say whatever it was he wanted me to say, here is one hopefully final statement.

On Tuesday the Florida Cabinet will discuss and possibly vote on the latest request that an associate professor from the University of South Florida, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, be allowed to dig up a 20th century cemetery at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Contrary to the false reports, biased stories or in many cases even outright lies that you likely have read in the media, this is not a criminal investigation. In fact, here is a direct quote from the researchers themselves:

...[T]his is a bioarchaeological investigation - not a criminal case, nor is Boot Hill Cemetery considered a crime scene; therefore, there is no immediate concern for chain of custody.

 Most of Florida's newspapers and television stations found it inconvenient to cover or even note this startling statement. I assume they ignored it at best or covered it up at worst because it indicates that the researchers themselves 1) do not consider the Dozier School Cemetery ("Boot Hill" as people like to call it) a crime scene and 2) do not see a need for following a chain of custody procedure with regard to any human remains they might dig up there as real crime scene investigators would do.

This is quite curious because most of Florida's major media outlets (and quite a few of its smaller ones) have been on a multi-year crusade to have USF investigate the "alleged murders" and other "crimes" they claim are in some way connected to the cemetery.

Perhaps this statement from the university itself - and similar ones from Nick Cox, statewide prosecutor in the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Dr. Michael Hunter, Medical Examiner  for the 14th Judicial Circuit - explain why USF researchers have been turned down repeatedly in their requests to dig up the bodies from the cemetery without the permission of the next of kin of those buried there. A circuit judge ruled that the project would violate the Constitutional due process rights of the families and the Secretary of State determined that the state had no authority to authorize such digging for research purposes.

In fact, even other archaeologists and anthropologists are beginning to speak out about the ethical concerns raised by USF's ongoing effort.  Consider this statement from Dr. William Lees, Executive Director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, who indicates he is "personally dismayed" by the course that the matter has taken:

...[T]o suggest that a criminal investigation be conducted through the archaeological research permit process shows a lack of understanding and a serious lack of respect for those buried at Dozier. It is ironic, I think, that these boys may have suffered at the hands of the state when they were alive, and now, as they lie buried, the hands of a state university once again threaten their peace.

Surprised to read that one of the leading archaeologists in the nation is appalled by the project at Dozier School?  If so, then you have only the media to blame for covering up his statements and not letting the public know that a credible, experienced and leading voice in Florida archaeology objects to this fiasco.  Since the state's "big" papers won't tell you what Dr. Lees has to say, you can read his statement for yourself at: http://www.flpublicarchaeology.org/blog/

Let me be clear about one thing, I do not fault Dr. Erin Kimmerle or any of her associates at the University of South Florida for wanting to dig up bodies, nor do I have any personal issues with the professor.  In fact, I've never met her.  I'm sure she probably is a nice and well-intentioned person and I'm sure she is a qualified and well-trained anthropologist.  Studying the dead is what forensic anthropologists do and I understand that such a project would be interesting to them.

However, I believe that the University of South Florida should abide by the decision of a circuit judge, the state archaeologist and the secretary of state in this matter. A legal decision has been rendered and a scientific decision has been made on whether this project should go forward and in both cases the answer was no.

There are those who say the graves should be investigated to "give the families closure" and to determine the facts.  I understand such thoughts. I feel the same way about the more than 270 African American and Choctaw men, women and children who lie buried at Fort Gadsden on the Apalachicola River. Their bodies were tossed into mass graves after the U.S. military blew them to bits for the simple reason that they were people of color who wanted to live free. Florida once thought this was such an important place that it created a state park to preserve the scene. There is no longer a state park at Fort Gadsden, although thankfully the federal government now preserves the site since the state did not consider it worth the time or money to do so.

If you aren't familiar with Fort Gadsden, then perhaps you would like to learn more:  http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortgadsden.

Regarding the graves at Dozier, here are some facts of which you might not be aware, mostly because the media (with some notable exceptions) hasn't bothered to tell you:
  • There is no evidence at all of more than one cemetery at Dozier School.  USF, after almost two years of looking, hasn't found a single grave anywhere other than on "Boot Hill."
  • The graves at the Dozier School Cemetery are not "clandestine" or "shallow" as some have claimed. They are normal Christian graves, just as were prepared in any other Christian (or Jewish or even non-religious) cemetery in the state from 1900 into the 1960s. The oldest of the graves is around 110 years old. The most recent is 62 years old. Most are more than 75 years old.
  • The Dozier School Cemetery is not "hidden" nor is it "unmarked." In fact, the USF research indicates the burial ground once was surrounded by a fence. In fact, the piles of dirt left behind after the university's team drove heavy equipment around on top of the graves include large sections of antique fence wire. The graves once were marked with wooden crosses and the Marianna and school newspapers routinely published obituaries when funerals took place there. The cemetery has been marked since the 1960s with a small memorial that was erected after the original markers were lost to time and the elements.
  • The Dozier School Cemetery is not a crime scene.  USF says that it is not, FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) says that it is not, the statewide prosecutor says that it is not, the medical examiner says that it is not, the sheriff of Jackson County says that it is not, etc.  I agree with them. 
  • The Dozier School Cemetery is not a "white cemetery" nor is it a "black cemetery."  It is a cemetery. Individuals of both races were buried there during the first 60 years of the school's existence. The cemetery is shown on plats and maps prepared by both the state and federal governments dating back as far as the 1930s Those documents show it as the only cemetery at the school, even though it was located on the old North or "Colored" Campus. Ask yourself this question, "Why would the school - due to Jim Crow policies - preserve and protect a black cemetery, but not a white one?" That doesn't even make sense, even in the often senseless viewpoints of that era.
  • . It is not true that individuals of different races were always buried in different cemeteries during the days of segregation.  Nearby Riverside Cemetery, a public burial ground in Marianna, is the final resting place for people of different races and dates back to 1827.  It is true that cemeteries often included "black sections" and "white sections" during segregation times and this is the case at Dozier School. The cemetery was once divided by a hedge and white bodies were buried on one side and black bodies on the other.
  • Digging up the graves will not provide "closure for all the families." At present, it only has the potential of providing closure for 7 families, because the researchers from USF have only located 7 of the families with next of kin buried there. That means that more than 40 bodies - many of them those of black and Latino individuals - will not be identified and no "closure" will be provided for their families. Personally, I believe that researchers could find more of the families if they slowed down and did good and thorough historical and genealogical research.  They disagree.  The media likes to say that USF has talked to "the families" but for whatever reason conveniently leaves out the fact that in reality the school's researchers have talked to no more than SEVEN of the families.
I could go on, but there is no need. This issue will now likely be decided by a group of high dollar politicians. They will do what they want and, to be honest, I have no idea what they will decide. I only know that the people who really knew the facts about this project - a circuit judge, the state archaeologist and the secretary of state - all said that it should not be done without first obtaining the permission of the families of all of those buried there.

In closing, I do have great sympathy for the seven families that USF has located. If these families would like to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones, they should be able to do so. I call upon the Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice to point out to them the specific graves in which their loved ones are buried so that their remains can be exhumed under existing state law and returned to their families.

If the Secretary of DJJ cannot do this, then the Legislature should reassign to that department the $190,000 it appropriated to USF to fund digging up the graves with the requirement that DJJ hire competent genealogists to locate all of the families. Once the families are all located, the state can secure their permission for the graves to be exhumed by a licensed funeral director (as state law allows) and for the bodies to be identified and returned to their families (if the bodies can be identified after so many decades in the ground and if their families so desire).

If this cannot be done, then the state should accept the offer I made long ago to raise money locally to have a simple and unbiased monument inscribed with the names of all of the known dead and erected at the cemetery, for the perimeter fencing to be restored and for the cemetery to be preserved forever as a memorial to those who rest there. Some of them are young men who died under unfortunate circumstances such as illness, fire and murder by other students, while others are adult employees who died while trying to help those who were entrusted to their care.

I wish no harm to anyone and hope that whatever happens - whether the graves are exhumed or not - good will come of it. Many lies and vicious accusations have been made against me because I stood up on this issue, and I have been called everything from a "Dixiecrat" to an outright racist for not climbing aboard the runaway train that the media - particularly the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times - set into motion. I forgive all who did so and wish you only happiness in your lives.

To my friends who agreed with me on this issue and had the courage to publicly say so, thank you. To my friends who disagreed with me but were honest about it, thank you as well.  We all have different opinions sometimes, but your honesty I appreciate and admire and I'm glad we could disagree but remain friends. And to my friends who said you agreed with me and would stand up as well, but then didn't, I forgive you.  Fear can be a powerful thing when you see your friends having their characters assassinated for their beliefs.  I understand.

I will say one final thing and I say this with a smile, race baiters who wish to accuse someone of being a "white Dixiecrat racist" should be careful in their assumptions. Categorizing or judging someone by race, in fact, is true racism. My heritage is Yuchi. If you aren't familiar with the Yuchi, then do a little research of your own and enjoy learning about a truly remarkable people who have survived far worse than poorly-conceived insults. Reading a little more about American Indian (or Native American if you prefer) culture might help you understand why digging up graves and pulling out bones for the sake of "scientific research" is so offensive to people of my heritage.

Since the media constantly asks for quotes but rarely uses them, I see no need at this time for me to comment further to them on this issue and do not plan to do so. I also will not publish anonymous comments to this post.

Dale Cox
August 5, 2013


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