Sunday, December 29, 2013

No Mass Grave at Dozier School Cemetery: Media Falls Silent

Dozier School Cemetery Site
Employees from the University of South Florida (USF) appear to have completed the exhumation of the graves from the Dozier School Cemetery. No mass grave was found.

The cemetery proved to be exactly what former school employees and local residents said it would be, an old cemetery where most of the graves were interred more than 75 years ago.

The media, which covered the beginning of the dig with carnival-like excitement, has vanished.

The university is expected to continue its research at Dozier for another eight months, trying to find a "second cemetery" that some claim must exist at the school. Former employees and local residents say there has not been a second cemetery within the memory of anyone alive in the community. State and Federal maps and plats dating back to the 1930s show only one cemetery, the one that has now been dug up by USF.

Wire from the original cemetery fence.
All of the graves found were inside the old fence line of that cemetery, which the media has sometimes confused with the small memorial erected at the site during the 1960s. In fact, an old wire fence surrounded a somewhat larger area and all of the graves were inside that area. The remains of that fence were visible in the spoil piles left behind when USF used heavy equipment to clear the historic site earlier in the year.

USF has not commented on the results of the dig and all media coverage stopped after the work revealed the bodies interred at the cemetery had been buried in coffins according to standard religious and mortuary practices of the time, not "dumped in holes" as some had claimed. USF employees - before falling silent - said during the first days of the dig that some of the coffins were "quite decorative."

Former employees of the school and local citizens with knowledge of its history had long said that the graves were not hidden or clandestine. They pointed out that people - both students and employees - had died at the school over its more than 100-year history and were known to be buried in the cemetery. They indicated that the bodies were buried in coffins and that funerals were held. A long-time maintenance employee of the school even pointed out that the graves originally had wooden markers, but that time and the elements had rotted them away. They disputed claims that the cemetery was a "dumping ground" for human bodies.  Despite the ridicule they faced in the media and on the internet, they maintained their stand.  In the end, they were right.

Although the university isn't talking for now, one thing is very clear: there were not 150 or more bodies in the cemetery as claimed by some former students of the now closed reform school. One former student told the media on the day that the dig began that there were "at least 100 more bodies up there" than the 50 or so thought by USF employees before the dig began.

The claims of hundreds of bodies in the cemetery received widespread coverage in state, national and international media. There has been no coverage since the claims proved false.

In answer to questions about why he had stopped covering the dig once it became clear that most of the allegations surrounding the cemetery were false, one journalist indicated he was "waiting for the final report because I don't want to report anything that isn't correct." Oddly, such journalistic standards were not at issue before the dig began. Wild stories then included allegations of everything from hundreds of graves in the cemetery to claims that it was a dumping ground for people murdered by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Attorney General Pam Bondi and the NAACP pushed for the dig, claiming repeatedly that "atrocities" had occurred. A leader with the NAACP even compared Dozier School to the infamous Nazi death camp of Dachau. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson did as well, posturing for television cameras with statements such as, "where there's smoke, there's fire."

More than $600,000 in state and federal tax money funded the dig, but in the end no clandestine mass grave was found.  The USF employees and volunteers have gone back to Tampa to analyze the remains and try to identify bodies for the handful of next of kin they actually found. The media has gone silent.

The little memorial placed decades ago by school employees and students in memory of those buried in the cemetery was destroyed by the dig. The graves it commemorated are gone.