Many speculated that the graves belonged to young boys who died after they suffered brutal conditions on the school’s campus – an allegation that led to the school closing down in June 2011 after widespread abuse was confirmed by the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Now, the state has approved a group of researchers from the University of South Florida to exhume the bodies from the graves for further examination.
“This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a press release. “Nothing can bring these boys back, but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”
Florida’s governor and Cabinet voted Tuesday morning to grant permission after months of negotiations and talks between the researchers and state officials.
The team of USF researchers is being led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and they are expected to begin exhumations later this month. As part of their mission, the researchers will try to identify the buried bodies by matching them to DNA samples taken from living relatives of the now-deceased boys.
The school itself opened in 1900 and previous records show that 96 boys and two adults died at the school in close to 60 years — from 1914 to 1973. Other records reveal that 31 boys were reportedly buried on school grounds while many of the deaths were attributed to a fire and influenza outbreak that occurred not too long after it opened.
However, according to a report obtained by NBC news, researchers estimated last year that there were at least 50 grave shafts in the land surrounding the school and could possibly include more than one body in each burial.
The exact number of secret graveyards is not definite as many speculated that there could more because of bodies that were buried elsewhere due segregated cemeteries, a practice which was common during that time, Kimmerle said.
“I didn’t realize going in how much of a story of civil rights it was,” she added.
While the researchers have not yet found a whites-only cemetery, it is likely that white and black boys were buried in separate cemeteries.