I had Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s novel based on accounts from Florida’s infamous Dozier School, on my TBR for a while, but letting it linger there so long has given the publishing industry time to put out We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle. It reads like a real-life episode of Bones, but swathed in far, far more rage at a system of inequality that still reverberates today.
From its opening in 1900 until it closed in 2011, the Dozier School for Boys in Florida’s Panhandle saw thousands of inmates, some as young as five, come through its doors for reformation from crimes such as burglary, truancy, underage smoking, and “incorrigibility.” Although reports of abuse forced its closure, such reports circulated widely and frequently through its entire century-plus existence. The book, however, is focused mainly on recovery efforts of graves, many unmarked and unrecorded, prompted by an impending sale of the land. School records indicate that about 35 boys died during the course of Dozier’s history, but when Kimmerle uses ground-penetrating radar (GPR) on the area, she spots what appears to be fifty graves.
Despite significant opposition from the community and local and state leaders, Kimmerle does ultimately gain permission to excavate the graves. What she discovers are more questions than answers, and those answers are grim: there are, in fact, at least 55 people buried in the cemetery, the youngest of whom was just six years old, and most of them were Black. Worse, the vast majority died of traumatic injuries or under mysterious circumstances at a facility whose survivors report brutal beatings and other punishments for even minor infractions, and constant physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse from those in power. The story of Dozier, its victims, and the efforts of the survivors to have their stories heard is woven together with Kimmerle’s experience and findings as the forensic anthropologist leading the project, making it evident that while justice might prevail, it has to go through a lot of red tape first.
Kimmerle appears to be a successful and dogged anthropologist, but the writing in We Carry Their Bones is so clear and compelling it’s hard not to wonder if she almost missed her calling as a writer. The subject matter is difficult at the best of times, so that strength of prose is crucial for keeping the reader tethered when good sense would say to close the book and look at a bird or tree or something far removed from the burned and broken bones strewn underground. Kimmerle also, crucially, doesn’t dwell on the violence; her focus is on telling the story without elaboration or obfuscation to best communicate her belief that every scoop of dirt contributes to long-overdue restorative justice for the dead, the broken, and their families.
That strong sense of restorative justice she brings makes the bureaucratic stumbling stones and stonewalling local people and entities all the more frustrating. She’s more charitable toward many of the disgruntled laypeople than I’m tempted to be, citing their disbelief that men who filled the pews of chapels could be beating young boys to death. To the leaders, though, she is, reasonably, less charitably, especially given the pervasive idea that the boys at Dozier were castoffs and criminals, and that being a castoff or a criminal means they deserved anything they got, including death. This is most common with her interactions with local agencies—the reception, or lack thereof, she gets with the sheriff’s office is stunning—but goes way up to virtually the highest levels of Florida’s government.
And yes, this is a book about one school and one herculean effort to bring a measure of peace, if not justice, to people hurt by it. But the attitudes that made it so dangerous are not unique to the school or to Florida. The attitudes that made her attempts to set a decades-long wrong right are perhaps stronger today than they were when this was ongoing in the late ’00s and through most of the 2010s. I’m no Floridian, but I read enough headlines and have enough friends from the Sunshine State to wonder if the support she ultimately got from former Gov. Rick Scott would have come from current Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s disturbing to know how fragile and uncertain finding support for something like “finding out how many kids are buried here before it gets paved over” can be.
Which, I think, is what Kimmerle wants to linger. That heinous acts can happen in small towns just as easily as the big cities, that we might not know our neighbors as well as we think, that illegal and immoral acts have repercussions that last for decades and generations. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, Kimmerle shows us, including in the Sunshine State.