After spending several years unearthing graves and crimes at an infamous, state-operated “school for boys” in Florida’s panhandle, University of South Florida anthropologist Erin Kimmerle has released her harrowing findings to the masses.
Located outside the small town of Marianna, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys operated under many names for 111 years before closing in 2011. Reports of abuse emanated from the sprawling, 1,400-acre campus since its opening in 1900.
In 2012, Kimmerle, executive director of the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, began leading a team of researchers to identify possible grave sites. Using ground-penetrating radar and following a lengthy struggle to gain approval for a full excavation, the scientific sleuths uncovered 55 burials.
Published by HarperCollins, We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s true story describing the painstaking process of uncovering the horrors at Dozier.
“One of the things about this story, I think, is that it is probably interesting to so many different people from different backgrounds and with different interests,” said Kimmerle to the Catalyst. “Because at its core, it’s about individual rights, civil rights and how we treat and view children.
“And so, I think that crosses all sorts of lines that are interesting to people.”
In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2019 novel The Nickel Boys, an archaeologist from USF uncovers graves at the fictitious Nickel Academy. Whitehead later informs readers that he based the book on the disturbing true story of the Dozier school, and Kimmerle inspired the fictional character.
The cover for We Carry Their Bones features a quote from the celebrated author of The Nickel Boys that sums up Kimmerle’s goal.
“In a corrupt world, Kimmerle’s unflinching revelations are as close as we’ll come to justice,” said Whitehead.
Kimmerle, along with students, scientists and law enforcement officers, uncovered atrocities and the subsequent coverups at the real reform school from 2012 to 2016. She also returned in 2018. Their mission was to locate and exhume undocumented graves, and the team found 55 burials on a section of the property known as Boot Hill Cemetery, 24 more than what had been previously reported.
The remains of children excavated by the USF team were returned to family members or reburied in Tallahassee. Some were unidentifiable.
The work was research-driven, and she and her colleagues wrote several technical reports documenting the process and the site’s history. Kimmerle said she always envisioned putting the findings together in some format once the project was complete.
“Once the work was done, I sort of stepped away from it for a little while,” she said. “And then I tried to come back to it – and eventually did.”
Rather than writing a strictly historical or academic account of her findings, Kimmerle said she wanted to create more of a narrative encompassing what she found beneath the North Florida clay.
“It took a while to figure out the best way to do that,” she said. “Because there’s so much history and so much to it.
“So, it was an effort to try and weave it together in a way that was more of a story than just an account of the history.”
The title, said Kimmerle, is both literal and figurative as the forensic anthropologist was actually unearthing children’s bones. The story, told through the eyes of forensic anthropology, offers a much different perspective than a historian or someone in another field, she added.
Kimmerle credited technological advancements for allowing her to discover the hidden burials and the backing of USF for helping her overcome political pressure and pushback from the surrounding community.
“There were a lot of pieces to this,” said Kimmerle. “But I think the fact that we were embedded in a university – that protects academic freedom – was really essential.”
Kimmerle also credited Ben Montgomery, who, along with Waveney Ann Moore, published a series of articles for the Tampa Bay Times in 2009 that shined a light on the horrors at Dozier and the men that survived. The investigative journalism was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 when the school was still in operation.
Kimmerle said Montgomery helped her transition to a different writing style, and her goal was to bring together his and Moore’s writings with her shocking discoveries in the years that followed.
“Families and communities are going back and trying to get information or justice in different ways, and they face a lot of the same challenges,” noted Kimmerle. “And so, this can be kind of a window into what’s involved and what those issues are.”
The expansive campus was a major employer in Jackson County. Many area residents worked at Dozier or had family and friends employed by the facility. Some of the thousands of boys sent to spend their childhoods at the school committed real crimes, but many were in for truancy – or just to reform perceived bad behavior.
Either way, the children came from poor, powerless and often Black families, and no one seemed to care much about why they were there or what happened to them after their arrival.
The complicity in the atrocities committed at Dozier did not stop at the local level.
Kimmerle said one of the most surprising aspects of her research is realizing how the school’s leaders lobbied state leadership to increase sentencing guidelines and expand the list of “crimes” – like incorrigibility – that could land a boy in Dozier during Florida’s Jim Crow era.
Members of the highest levels of state government complied.
Those with a vested interest in allowing the cycle of beatings, rape and murder to continue also used the media to their advantage, said Kimmerle, through a series of press releases that began shortly after the school opened.
“They really tried to create a narrative of what the school is about, even though it was contrary to every state investigation – year-after-year-after-year,” she said.
Kimmerle relayed that people often ask how Dozier was allowed to operate in the way it did for so long. Her answer is always “not by accident.”
“It wasn’t just evolving,” she added. “It was constructed, and there was a real effort to maintain it as it was.”
Even though the school closed a decade ago, Kimmerle said the effort to maintain the previous narrative remains to this day. She said many in the area have that perception ingrained into their belief system and family history, and no amount of science or historical documentation will change that.
Kimmerle said that many residents and officials considered the boys at Dozier “throwaways.” They were not children or students – they were simply convicted criminals.
“It was really just this perception that they’re unwanted or uncared for,” she said. “There was no advocacy for them.”
In a way, Kimmerle hopes “We Carry Their Bones” serves as an advocate for the boys that lost their lives at Dozier, the survivors and their families.
A central theme in all her work, said Kimmerle, is that everyone deserves equal access to the justice system.
“I think there’s a need for this type of discussion when we look at all of these different issues,” she said. “Hopefully, this contributes to that discussion.”