"They was throwaways."
William Morrow, 2022
It wasn't all that long ago that I read Colson Whitehead's excellent The Nickel Boys,
a novel inspired by the stories of abuse from men who as children were sent to the real-world Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It is also a story of the long reach of trauma that lasts well after the horrific events at the fictional Nickel Academy, and how an investigation headed by a team from a Florida university that uncovers a "secret graveyard" sent one man back to finally confront the past and his pain. As Whitehead wrote in his book, "Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but ... no one believed them until someone else said it."
In We Carry Their Bones, Dr. Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida, who is also a leading forensic anthropologist, explains that she had been introduced by a friend to a "local reporter" who had been working on "a series of stories" about "the dark history" of the Dozier School, including "brutal beatings and sadistic guards and mysterious deaths."
As she notes,
"The stories raised questions about a purported cemetery on the school's property, and the reporter had hit a dead end. He had found the families of boys who died in custody and were buried at the school, families that had never found peace, for they'd never been given the opportunity to properly mourn. No one could point to the location of the graves where their brothers and uncles were buried. No state official had stepped up to find those burials."
While there was a small cemetery on the once-segregated black side of the grounds known in the records and among the locals as "Boot Hill," Dr. Kimmerle and her team were not "confident" that this was the only burial site. Permission to explore all of the grounds was denied by the Department of Juvenile Justice (which had claim to the side of the school where white boys had been confined and which did not close until 2011), and in 2012, the reason given was "pending sale of the property and other liability concerns." Kimmerle understood that with the sale of the "220 acres of the boys' school land," the new owners might very well "pave a parking lot on top of the graves of little boys," and that time was of the essence.
Just briefly, because it is a book you must read for yourself so I won't go into too much detail here, We Carry Their Bones details the work of Kimmerle and her team in investigating the area while trying to discover not only an actual number of burials, but also in trying to identify some of the remains so that they could be returned to their families. She realized that a major part of her work was to glean as much information about the school as possible from the historical record, and to get to know as much as she can about the place and the people. Among her discoveries were the names of boys whose deaths had gone unreported by school officials, including boys who died after having run away, those who died after having been "paroled to local plantations for labor" or boys who died from illnesses while in "overcrowded living conditions, without adequate food or medicine." Most importantly, her findings didn't jibe with those of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), who 2008 were tasked by the governor at the time to "investigate the 32 unidentified graves that were marked by white metal crosses" and to figure out the identities of the dead in those graves. He had also directed FDLE investigators to determine "if any crimes had been committed." The FDLE had reported that they found
"no evidence to suggest that the School or its staff made any attempts to conceal and/or contributed to the deaths of these individuals"
and documented the number of burials as thirty-one, which just happened to correspond to the number of crosses (made out of pipes) placed there in the 1990s. Kimmerle's use of ground-penetrating radar suggested at least fifty burials in the area of Boot Hill, and the historical record speaks for itself as far as covering up crimes.
Her struggle to gain access to the school's grounds was a tough one. As one example, state bureaucrats refused her application for a permit saying that the recovery of human remains was not covered within the scope of the permit, which allowed only for the recovery of "objects of historical or archaeological value." She also met with stubborn resistance from Marianna locals, many of whom had either worked at the school at some point or had relatives who'd worked there and felt it would be better just to let things be than to rehash the school's history, which might damage the town's reputation and hurt it economically. As one woman, an archivist Kimmerle spoke to noted, the boys were "inmates, not children," as well as "throwaways." Of course there's also the fact that the school provided free labor from the Dozier boys as part of the convict-lease system and that many of the town's inhabitants had gained financially as a result. But Kimmerle would not be deterred in her quest, and with the support of the media, of many of the boys' families and of politicians to whom she appealed, her team would go on to not only excavate remains, but also to examine them forensically and to take DNA samples from relatives in her effort to match those remains to names. In the end, she would eventually carry some of the bones of the identified boys to reunite them with their families.
Colson Whitehead's blurb on the front of this book notes that "In a corrupt world, Kimmerle's unflinching revelations are as close as we'll come to justice," and at every turn it is obvious that her objective was to offer any support and help she could to the families of the Dozier boys who never made it home. As she points out at the end, "the door was closed to us in the search for historic justice by many who had the power to open it," but Kimmerle's determination and that of all of the people involved made it so they would not and did not fail. It is a difficult book to read on several levels but on the other hand, it is a story that seriously needs telling, right now.
Very, very highly recommended.
If anyone is interested, there's a documentary highlighting Dr. Kimmerlee's work available online called "Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier"
or if you want to read Dr. Kimmerle's report on the Documentation of the Boot Hill Cemetery at the Former Dozier School for Boys, Marianna Florida, you can find it here.