We Carry Their Bones, by Erin Kimmerle

Trigger warning for extreme child abuse and murder.

Before it closed in 2011, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was the subject of repeated state investigations for abuse and unexplained deaths of the boys who were sentenced there. The correctional institution was a place where boys were dumped. Many of the inmates had been sentenced for criminal offenses, but some (especially children of color) could be sentenced for “vagrancy”—a “crime” that forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle notes was often used to snatch people (again, especially people of color) from around the state to lease out for prison labor. All of those investigations found evidence of extreme abuse and yet the school was remained open for 111 years, after dozens of children had died and thousands more suffered irreparable psychological and physical harm. We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s attempt to document the crimes that took place at the Dozier School and her role in uncovering dozens of unmarked graves on the School’s land when the University of South Florida finally got permission to conduct a forensic investigation in 2012.

We Carry Their Bones is the second book I’ve read that was based, at least in part, on events at the Dozier School. In 2020, I read Colson Whitehead’s gutting novel, The Nickel Boys. That novel is part of the reason I wanted to read We Carry Their Bones. I wanted to know more about the history behind Whitehead’s book. That history is very grim indeed. The Florida School for Boys—later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—was founded in 1900 as a place for minor boys to be sentenced by the court system. The institution was segregated. When investigators recommended reforms (when they weren’t asking for the whole school to be shut down), the few reforms that were enacted were usually only implemented on the white side of the school. For example, one of the early investigations required that the school install fire escapes on the dormitories, they were only added to the white ones. Only years later were fire escapes added to all the dormitories. A fire destroyed one of the white dormitories in 1914. At least seven people died in that fire. It would have been worse if not for the two fire escapes–although Kimmerle points out that the doors to those fire escapes were locked and chained. Guards and children had to break the locks to get out.

Almost 100 years later, Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida found those seven bodies, co-minged in a confusing number of coffins, in unmarked graves on the school grounds. School and legal records (those that could be found) recorded 31 burials on the school grounds. Between 2011 and 2012, fifty-five graves had been found. The initial USF investigation used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called ground-truthing to find the graves in the graveyard. Ground-truthing is the removal of a shallow layer of soil to see if anomalies detected by the radar were burial sites. Kimmerle and her team didn’t have permission to dig deeper to confirm burials or exhume bodies. They, relatives of children who died at Dozier, and former inmates had to go to court repeatedly to get official permission to exhume bodies, identify those they could, and rebury them. Kimmerle frequently shares her memories of conversations with grieving family members and former inmates. Even decades later, the grief and fear and sorrow and anger are fresh. The former inmates, notably the White Hosue Boys (who took their name from the building on campus where the worst beatings were meted out), and family members never stopped asking questions about what happened at Dozier.

I appreciated several things about We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s persistence in getting at least some justice for the children, the former inmates, and the relatives; her forensic expertise; and her efforts to put the crimes of the Dozier school into historical context. That said, I struggled to get through the brief book. We Carry Their Bones is disorganized and repetitive. Events aren’t arranged chronologically or thematically. Some events are told more than once, in similar language. A lot of the school’s history itself is glossed over. I can understand that people who worked at the school would be very unwilling to talk to Kimmerle, but it’s hard to conceive of how the Dozier School was open for so long, almost entirely unchanged in spite of the investigations, without more information. On that score, Kimmerle does touch upon why the residents of Marianna—who for decades staffed the school and were financially supported by it—would have such a hard time a) admitting the crimes that happened at the school and b) accepting that the school’s secrets must come to light. A lot of white Americans resist the fact that their ancestors did terrible things. A lot of the people who fight Kimmerle and other’s efforts were very much alive when those crimes occurred. If they knew, they were complicit. If they didn’t know, they knew people who were involved, either in the brutality itself or the efforts to cover it up.

In sum, although there are some very good parts of We Carry Their Bones and although this is an important story that must be told, I think this book could have used more time with the editors to cut the repetitive elements; suggest areas to add additional, relevant material; and re-organize the overall structure.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s