We Carry Their Bones
Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle explores the legacy of the notorious Dozier Boys School—the true story behind the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Nickel Boys—and the contentious process to exhume the graves of the boys buried there in order to reunite them with their families.
The Arthur G. Dozier Boys School was a well-guarded secret in Florida for over a century, until reports of cruelty, abuse, and “mysterious” deaths shut the institution down in 2011. Established in 1900, the juvenile reform school accepted children as young as six years of age for crimes as harmless as truancy or trespassing. Many of the boys sent there, many of whom were Black, were subject to brutal torture, routinely hired out to local farmers by the school’s management as slave labor, and many died either at the school or attempting to escape its brutal conditions.
In the wake of the school’s shutdown, Erin Kimmerle, a leading forensic anthropologist, stepped in to “ground map” the school’s graveyard to determine the number of graves and begin the process of reuniting the boys with their families through DNA testing. The school’s poorly kept accounting suggested some thirty-one boys were buried among the rusty pipe crosses in a remote field on the school’s property. The real number was at least twice that. Kimmerle’s work did not go unnoticed; there were those who threatened and harassed her in their eagerness to control the truth she was uncovering.
We Carry Their Bones is a detailed account of Jim Crow America and an indictment of the reform school system as we know it. It’s also a fascinating dive into the science of forensic anthropology and an important retelling of the extraordinary efforts taken to bring these lost children home to their families—an endeavor that created a political firestorm and a dramatic reckoning with racism and shame in the legacy of America.