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Two More Dozier Families Get Answers

In 1934, 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and his brother, Hubert, were sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys for allegedly stealing a typewriter.

In 1944, 12-year-old Earl Wilson went to the reform school in the panhandle town of Marianna, Florida, for allegedly riding in a car a friend stole.

Neither Thomas nor Earl ever returned home -- until now. Science and perseverance are finally giving their families some peace.

"Just a huge relief, that's about all I can tell you - the most rewarding relief I've ever had in my life," says Glen Varnadoe, who has long tried to find out what happened to his uncle Thomas, even filing a lawsuit to prevent the state from selling 220 acres of Dozier property two years ago.

His family never believed school officials' claims that Thomas died from pneumonia barely a month after arriving there, debating their contentions that he was in poor health even before he arrived at Dozier.

"I was only five, six years old when he went away, and he was just healthy as could be, as far as I could see," said Thomas' brother, Richard.

The Varnadoe family also wondered why they weren't notified of his death until a few days later, but most importantly, they could never get a precise location of where Thomas was buried, as his final resting place was an unmarked grave somewhere on campus grounds.

The family is now elated that Thomas has been removed from what Glen called Dozier's "atrocity-laden soils."

"It gives me great pleasure and spiritual relief that Thomas will not spend eternity in the humanly demeaning surroundings, but will rest in peace in eternity with his brothers and family members who have never forgotten him," Varnadoe said at a news conference held at the University of South Florida Thursday.

USF researchers, led by anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, announced they had identified the remains of Thomas Varnadoe and Earl Wilson, the first African-American student identified.

"Once we finally put Thomas to rest and put him in a place with his family, this is one thing I can put behind me and go ahead and live my life now, and that's what I'm looking forward to," Varnadoe added.

Kimmerle’s team used ground penetrating radar and other methods to map the school's graveyard, finding more grave shafts than school records and previous investigations had said there were. The researchers exhumed remains from 55 shafts last year, and began trying to match DNA from the remains with that of relatives of boys who had died at the School, many under suspicious circumstances.

These latest matches bring the total to three boys identified.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Lucielle Salomon / WUSF 89.7 News
The Florida Channel
The "sweat box" building on the Dozier School campus where court records say Earl Wilson, 12, was beaten to death by four classmates in 1945.

Cherry Wilson, now 76, says her family heard a number of stories about how her 12-year-old brother Earl died in 1944: a jury convicted four classmates of beating him to death in a small confinement cottage on the campus known as a sweat box, while a friend of Earl's said he died from punishment Dozier officials gave him for smoking.

Like Varnadoe, they weren't told of Earl's death until days later, and no one could tell them where he was buried.

"My mother couldn't find anything out, my daddy tried, he did before he died, then my sister, she was trying, both of them was trying to find, they couldn't get nothing before they died," she said.

Cherry was one of those who submitted a DNA sample, and Wednesday, results came back - it matched a set of remains.

"I thought it was a joke, when my son called me yesterday evening and told me, I thought he was playing with me,” she said. “I didn't believe it really until I came here today, and that's when I really believed that it was true."

"It feel good, because I have closure to it now, see?" Wilson added. "I don't have to wonder, will they ever find any parts of him or what now."

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
The Florida Channel
USF Professor of Anthropology Erin Kimmerle (left) talks with John Varnadoe Thursday.

In Thomas Varnadoes' case, it was 86-year-old Richard, his only surviving sibling, who provided the matching DNA.

"I didn't think I would live to see the end of this, but I did,” he said with a laugh. “Apparently somebody had some use for me somewhere!"

Kimmerle said these two matches, and that of the first boy identified, 14-year-old George Owen Smith, came through siblings.

"It's a close genetic match, as opposed to when you move down generations or move out into cousins, nieces, nephews, it can be a little bit more difficult," she said.

The researchers plan to return to Dozier this fall for more investigation. Kimmerle says they've also received permission from Pennsylvania officials to exhume the body of Thomas Curry from a Philadelphia cemetery.

The 15-year-old reportedly died under violent circumstances a month after he was admitted to Dozier in 1925.

"We're looking to do DNA identification as well to confirm who it is, and then to look at the cause of death and see if we can get information about that and better understand the circumstances surrounding his death," she said.

On Thursday, hints of that violence overshadowed the joy of the families who have their loved ones back. Glen Varnadoe says that when Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officials and USF researchers told his family the news, it ended up taking his uncle Richard back 80 years to when his brothers were arrested.

"He immediately flashed back to the day they picked his brothers up,” Glen Varndoe said. “He actually commented, 'I can hear them screaming and hollering as the car drove off.'"

Still, he wants families of other Dozier students still waiting for closure to have their day.

"My message for those folks would be not to give and just keep the faith, continue to look for their loved ones, and don't take no for an answer,” he said. “That's what I did, I didn't take no for an answer."

Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.