Florida’s Dozier School for Boys was open for 111 years in Marianna, Florida, and had a long history of terror, abuse, and disappearances. The school closed in 2011, but the search for the bones and identities of over 50 boys in unnamed graves still continues. This week on Midpoint forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle spoke about the ongoing search.
Listen to the full episode here:
What is the Dozier School?
Opened in 1900, The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was a reform school. At one time, it was the largest reform school in the United States. But from the beginning, the treatment of ‘students’ in the school was riddled with abuse. In the first 13 years of operation alone, six investigations were launched.
The offenses for which boys were placed in the Dozier school. Some were true juvenile criminals, while others were sent there for reasons like ‘school truancy’.
Over the course of its 111-year run of operation, over 80 deaths were recorded, with many of the bodies being placed in unnamed mass graves, or “shipped home to families or buried in unknown locations”, according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. 31 white crosses were placed on the school grounds in commemoration of the deaths.
Finding the Bones
A group of five men, known now as the “White House Boys”, came forward to ask the Florida government to not only formally acknowledge the abuse that was endured by the boys at the school, but shut down the “White House” (the name of one of the buildings in which the abuse was carried out). And while the abuse was acknowledged, many families who were searching for their lost boys were told that there was nothing that could be done to find them or explain what happened to them.
That’s where Erin Kimmerle comes in. As a forensic anthropologist, her job is to analyze the bones of the deceased and determine not only the skeleton’s identity, but the explanations of why they died. After volunteering herself to the investigation, Kimmerle quickly became a leader of the fight to bring these lost prisoners justice.
An initial archaeological investigation into the 31 graves quickly found more, leading to a total of over 50. With no record of these other deaths, the investigation became broader: who were these undocumented men, and how were their deaths connected to the Dozier School?
A request to excavate and exhume these graves was denied by local government ; the Marianna area was small, and the Dozier School had been the town’s largest employer for 111 years. The loss of jobs, and the tight-knit support of the community that housed and ran the school brought backlash against the investigation. However, a permit for excavation was granted in 2013.
Those bodies who have been identified have been returned to the families, while the rest have been buried in a cemetery in Tallahassee, which the exception of seven co-mingled remains from a dormitory fire.
We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s Book
As a leader in the investigation at the school and an advocate for the families affected by the Dozier School, Dr. Erin Kimmerle released a book in June of this year about the work. We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys was published by HarperCollins, and has received praise from notable authors such as Colson Whitehead, who’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writing was directly inspired by Kimmerle’s story.
You can find the book here: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/we-carry-their-bones-erin-kimmerle?variant=39703497539618