“We Carry Their Bones” Unearths The Dark History of the Dozier School for Boys

There is a remarkable “allatonceness” to Erin Kimmerle’s We Carry Their Bones. This book simultaneously details the horrific history of the Dozier School; narrates the bureaucracy of Florida Panhandle permitting and authority; honors the men who survived years of abuse at Dozier; places responsibility on the men and communities who allowed the abuse to continue; points fingers at an America that allows boys to be “thrown away”; and chronicles the emotional and archeological journey of the author, Erin Kimmerle, as she leads a team of scientists through the Florida mud in order to “earth truth” Boot Hill, the cemetery at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL. Kimmerle “carries their bones,” both literally and figuratively, as she excavates the rough hewn caskets, some a century old, carrying and caring for boys who have been all but forgotten.

Many who pick up We Carry Their Bones will make an immediate connection to Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, the historical fiction novel based on the Dozier School for Boys. When excavating We Carry Their Bones, you will see how much truth Whitehead pulled from Kimmerle’s fine work. The White House was real — a white house in which punishment was cruelly meted out one lash at a time. The school was strictly segregated for most of its existence. The boys were rented out as labor to the community. People came to see the elaborate Christmas decorations at the holiday time – a farce if there ever was one. Boys really did disappear in the night.

An archaeologist does more than pull bones from the ground. She must extract as much information from the historical record as possible, maximizing her knowledge about the place and people before any stone is upturned. In addition to learning the vivid history of this troubled institution – the first grievance was filed in 1903, only three years after the school was established – Kimmerle learns the stories of many of the boys who were sent to Dozier, for reasons as hollow as truancy, incorrigibility, and poverty. Using archival research, she tells the story of the fire of 1914, in which a dorm built for 64 actually housed 190 boys on the night it went up in flames, taking the lives of at least 10 people, many of whom were children imprisoned behind locked doors on the third floor.

Something just as profoundly disturbing as reading the history of abused boys is the contemporary attitudes towards truth-seeking at Dozier. Lawmakers were less than enthusiastic about digging at Dozier. The state of Florida approved mapping the cemetery but would not allow digging. The Florida Bureau of Archeological Research also denied the team’s permit, claiming that granting archeological permits is limited to “recovery of objects of historical or archeological value, not human remains.” Beyond the bureaucrats, the public was also unsupportive. At one point, an unhelpful archivist remarks to Kimmerele about the boys, “They were inmates, not children. These boys were not sent here for singing too loud in the church choir.” When Kimmerele tried to appeal to her sense of family, the archivist denied that the boys could have been loved: “They was throwaways.”  Clearly, for some, the past is justified and is best left buried in an unmarked grave.

Kimmerle is more than a writer and forensic archaeologist. She also speaks at press conferences, lobbies the legislature, and provides support for people like Glen Varnadoe, desperate to recover the remains of his uncle, Thomas Varnadoe; Ovell Krell, sister to George Owen, who never made it home from Dozier; and Richard Huntley, Johnny Lee Gaddy, and Bryant Middleton, men who survived but never forgot the abuses they faced at the hands of the state. Kimmerle is also the scientist who facilitated the DNA screenings that positively identified some of the remains found in the Boot Hill Cemetery. She also serves as a collective voice of consciousness, who writes beautifully and chillingly, “Difficult boys are easy to forget. We remember.”

Readers will come away from We Hold Their Bones feeling deeply disturbed about the history of our nation, especially when it comes to juveniles in the criminal justice system. They will also come away with a sense of admiration for the vital work of Erin Kimmerle.

We Carry Their Bones
Erin Kimmerle
William Morrow & Company
Published June 14, 2022