Erin Kimmerle’s 2022 text We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys (William Morrow) is an unflinching examination of systemic racism in the state of Florida. Kimmerle is a forensic anthropologist who led a dig at the graveyard of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The school was established in 1900 under the guise of a juvenile reform institution and would accept boys as young as five for things like truancy and trespassing. However, many of the boys who were sent there were brutally beaten, sexually abused, tormented, hired out as indentured labourers, and died under mysterious circumstances. Most of the boys who sent to the school were black, and the school maintained strict segregation during the Jim Crow-era. Kimmerle became involved when former students began to come out in large numbers to discuss their brutal experiences at the school, and suggested that there were more bodies buried in the school grounds than the historical record claimed; school records suggested that thirty-one boys were buried in the school’s impromptu graveyard. Kimmerle and her team received permission to use ground penetrating radar on the site to determine if there were more human remains than the school’s records indicated. When the GPR discovered that there could be as many as fifty bodies in the graveyard, Kimmerle and her team began the long process of convincing the state of Florida that the bodies needed to be excavated and identified.
Something I really appreciated about this book were the ways it tackled the systemics problems behind a school like this existing in the first place. Kimmerle frames the school as a “legalized slave plantation” and explains that the practices at the school were “a continuation of enslavement under the guise of correction” (126). Kimmerle offers the historical context that allowed the school’s inhumane practices to flourish and shows how the racist ideology that the school was built on has extended into the present day. Kimmerle and her advocates had to spend years convincing the state of Florida—and the citizens of Marianna—that this excavation needed to be done, despite the hard science they had that told them there were more that thirty-one bodies buried in the graveyard. Kimmerle and her team argued that excavation of the remains needed to happen not only so the unknown remains could be identified and returned to the families, but also to hold the state accountable and set the historical record straight: these boys died while in the care of the state. Even in cases of accidental death, the state was responsible for their wards.
This argument didn’t sit well with the locals, who claimed Kimmerle and her team were money grabbing outsiders who didn’t understand the good that the school did. Kimmerle spends a lot of time in the text discussing the town’s reaction to the purposed excavation, and I think this was extremely effective because it allowed readers to see how systemic racism is handed down from generation to generation:
The antagonism wasn’t altogether unexpected. Anytime there is an effort at truth and reconciliation in a small town where the bright light of publicity shines on some dark deed, the powerful people in town try to control their truth—or at least the thing that’s true to them…[t]he Doizer culture did not come from nowhere—there was a script behind it, and that moral imperative set the stage for conflict. It was science versus belief. No facts or data will change a belief that is valued and nurtured, in spite of all evidence to suggest otherwise. In this case, it was a code of conduct built on a foundation for which cruelty and inequality could be repeatedly justified, contrasted against notions of equality and transparency (88-89).
Seeing what Kimmerle and her team were up against is such an important part of this book—those who aided and abetted those who committed heinous acts continued to do so. However, after many legal battles, Kimmerle and her team were eventually allowed to excavate the remains, and the number of remains they actually found is shocking. Some of the most interesting parts of this book for me were when Kimmerle explained how they dug up the remains and how they attempted to identify them. Kimmerle relays this complicated work in an extremely detailed way: if you have ever wondered about remains identification or forensic work, you will find these parts fascinating.
My favorite parts of the book, though, were the beautiful and touching sections were Kimmerle explained what it felt like to go to memorial services for boys she helped excavate and identify. The outpouring of love from the families was beautiful to witness and showed how worth it this process really was.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough. This is a story that needed to be told, and needs to be heard.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.