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While Split Over Dozier Memorial, Task Force Agrees To Help Fire Victims’ Descendant

Sascha Cordner
Rhonda Dykes spoke to Dozier Task Force members during their first meeting. She's the descendant of two staffers, who were killed in a dorm fire on the Dozier property in 1914. Their remains were among those exhumed by researchers a few years ago.

There’s only one meeting left, before final recommendations are made on a memorial for the unclaimed remains of boys who died at the Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle. So far, there’ve been a lot of disagreements among Dozier Task force members. But, during their first meeting, there was at least one memorial all sides did agree on.

Wednesday's organizational meeting of the Dozier Task Force started off very cordial, as members introduced themselves—starting with Stephen Britt.

“It has been a difficult few months, but I’m sure that we can come together as one cohesive group,” said Britt, at the time.

Because of a new state law, Britt along with the rest of the task force are charged with two things: create a memorial and determine its location.

Some families have claimed the remains of boys who died and were buried on the Dozier grounds in Marianna. The memorial is for the unclaimed ones. It’s believed they died due to alleged abuse.

An excavation started a few years ago allowed Britt and his family to be DNA matched with the remains of his late uncle, Robert Stephens, last year.

“Imagine a 14-year-old boy walking into the room with his aunts crying because their brother who they remember was 15 the last time they saw him, I never knew I had an uncle that was murdered up here,” added Britt.

Task Force members can present their own memorial ideas at the next and final meeting. But, it’s the location that drew the most concern.

After speaking to people in his community, Jackson County Commissioner Eric Hill said he believes the memorial should be in a more prominent location.

“Maybe the University of South Florida, or somewhere south of here where the population is greater, that it might serve the recognition of in the individuals that were here and went through this would be better served in a larger location,” said Hill.

But, that angered Britt.

“I am the only one on the task force that has lost a loved one over at that facility,” he responded. “And, for Jackson County to even insinuate that they want to move it out of their county when your ancestors performed some of the most diabolical, sadistic, masochistic acts known to man, here? What are you afraid of?”

But, Jerry Cooper, a former ward of the Dozier school, says he—like Hill—wants the memorial at another location. Calling it Hell, Cooper says he was sent there as a teenager for running away a third time from an abusive home. Pointing to how long it took for the state to recognize that there were remains buried on the Dozier grounds, he didn’t feel a memorial would suffice in that area.

“Now, why would we want as White House boys to have these kids reinterred on that property when they weren’t taken care of in the first place,” Cooper asked.

The White House Boys—which Cooper leads—is a group of former boys who say they suffered physical or sexual abuse, or both in a building on the property labelled the White House—which he and others want destroyed.

But, like Britt, NAACP Tallahassee branch president Dale Landry wanted the memorial at the Dozier site.

“Our biggest fear is this: that once you let it go, then it will be forgotten,” said Landry. “It has to be at that same site.”

He suggested the church on the property as a possible memorial site. But, Cooper disagreed.

“Part of a report which has been done in the last few months that the FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] opened up another investigation involving sex abuse in the Marianna School for Boys,” said Cooper. “Some of that sex abuse went on in that church. Can I change your mind?”

They couldn’t come to an agreement on that. And, with at least one other in favor of another location, Landry called the make-up of the task force “stacked” and almost left the meeting. But, deciding against it, he said he’ll stick it out until the very end.

“The foolishness that I’ve seen as we’ve gone through this trail, it really bothers me, by virtue of the fact of there being private, clandestine meetings,” said Landry. “And, things of this nature. It was very clear that when I got in here, I saw it was a set up. This was already pre-determined. I’m hoping that we can change minds before, and I’m hoping the public will come out on August 19th to speak out that everybody here gets the message that this is wrong.”

But, what brought all parties together was the unique perspective of Rhonda Dykes. She’s the relative of two staffers who were killed in a 1914 dorm fire, killing at least eight other students as well.

“My great-great-grandfather’s name was Reuben Bennett Evans Jr. and his son was Charles Evans,” she said. “Accounts of the fire have described them as heroes as they tried to save the lives of the students in the burning dorm. The fire was so intense that when the fire victims’ remains were buried, they were comingled in seven small wooden boxes and buried.”

When they exhumed the remains on the property, University of South Florida researchers led by Erin Kimmerle said they knew fire victims were included. And, some were identified.

But Dykes says her family—long ago—actually paid for a burial on the Dozier grounds. Calling the unclaimed remains for the Dozier children a separate issue, she added her family just wants the remains of her ancestors back for a reburial and maybe even a commemoration ceremony.

“The purpose of the exhumations was to determine the causes of death of each individual, yet there has never been a dispute of the causes of death of the fire victims,” Dykes added. “Our ancestors’ remains never should have been exhumed, as it was known that they were fire victims and their general location has been known for over 100 years.”

Dozier Task Force members say they’ll first have to go through the proper channels to make that happen since they’re unsure if that falls under their purview, but all agreed they’d work with Dykes and her family to make that happen.

Meanwhile, examples of the memorial proposals must first be sent to the Florida Department of State by Thursday. Then, at the final August 19th meeting, recommendations will be discussed and there will be public comment, before they go the state Legislature.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.