Was it a case of extreme negligence that resulted in the boys’ deaths, or were they deliberately burned alive?
Considering circumstances before, during, and after the 1959 fatal episode at the Arkansas reform school in Wrightsville, some believe it’s the latter.
Jim Crow restrictions prevented blacks from fully integrating into society in the 1950s. During this time, Arkansas was at the forefront of desegregation, and its governor attracted national headlines for some questionable actions.
Despite a judgement finding school segregation unlawful, Orval Faubus utilized the military to prevent nine black pupils from enrolling at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
A mystery fire engulfs the Wrightsville dormitory two years later, killing 21 of the 69 black boys who had been locked from the outside, and prompting accusations that Arkansas did not value the lives of its black people.
On March 5, 1959, a mystery fire broke out at the reform school known as the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School (NBIS) at 4:00 a.m. on a cold, rainy morning.
69 African-American males, ages 13 to 17, were padlocked into the school’s dormitory the night before the incident. The fire broke out the next morning, forcing the boys to claw their way out of the burning building, which was locked from the outside.
In the stifling heat and smoke, 48 children aged 13 to 17 clawed their way out by breaking two of the building’s window screens, leaving 21 trapped inside.
When the smoke cleared the next morning, the 21 lads who had died in the fire were discovered heaped on top of one another in the dormitory’s corner.
The horrific tragedy, which some have dubbed a holocaust, drew attention to the reform school, which had been largely neglected throughout the Jim Crow era.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School (NBIS) was a juvenile work farm located first outside Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and subsequently outside Wrightsville in the mid-1930s.
Orphaned boys, the destitute, and those accused of petty offenses were all sent to the black facility. A report by sociologist Gordon Morgan published three years before the fire detailed what was described as “horrible conditions” at Wrightsville.
“Many boys go for days wearing nothing but rags. During [the winter] of 1955–56, more than half of them don’t wear socks or underwear…. “It is not uncommon to see adolescents endure weeks without showering or changing clothes,” according to the 1956 report.
It went on to say that there was no laundry equipment and that the entire population’s bathing needs were met by a single thirty-gallon hot water tank. Employees were required to bring their own water to work because the tap water was unsafe to drink. The boys were kept in such horrible conditions at the reform school.
“The conditions were to the point where 69 boys all go to bed at night in a space barely big enough for them to move around in and they are one foot apart from one another and you had to get up at night and go to the bathroom, they had to defecate in buckets,” Frank Lawrence, a brother of a victim of the 1959 fire, once said.
According to records, Governor Faubus toured the Wrightsville school prior to the fire and observed the boys’ living conditions, but did not recommend any changes.
Despite this, the media stated the morning after the fire that he “looked saddened by the death of the 21 boys, calling the fire ‘inexcusable.’”
He quickly requested a hearing to determine who may have been responsible for the boys’ deaths. The school’s employees and administrator, Lester R. Gaines, offered versions of what happened the night of the fire, noting that the boys were locked up with no one to watch them.
According to a Flickr report, Lee Andrew Austin, the livestock supervisor, “had left the building — which included the dorm, a chapel, the caretaker’s office, and workshop — in the middle of the night because the lights went out and he needed to fetch a flashlight from his home, which was near the dorm”.
Several individuals and agencies were determined to be liable by the Pulaski County Grand Jury, but no criminal charges were filed.
The grand jury issued the following remark in its final report:
“The blame can be placed on lots of shoulders for the tragedy: the Board of Directors, to a certain extent, who might have pointed out through newspaper and other publicity the extreme hazards and plight of the school; the Superintendent and his staff, who perhaps continued to do the best they could in a resigned fashion when they had nothing to do with [it]; the State Administration, one right after another through the past years, who allowed conditions to become so disreputable; the General Assembly of the State of Arkansas, who should have been so ashamed of conditions that they would have previously allowed sufficient money to have these conditions corrected; and finally on the people of Arkansas, who did nothing about it.”
Lawrence, on the other hand, is not convinced. Lawrence, who has been working to solve the case, said, “It was a perfectly calculated murder that involved 21 lads but was designed to kill 69 who were confined inside of this dormitory.”
“In 1959, there existed a science for preserving a crime scene. They were disassembling this entire scene with hoses, rakes, and shovels the morning these youngsters were killed. “They were ripping it apart as if they were attempting to hide something,” he explained.
“Everyone wants to believe it was an accident in order to avoid further disgrace for Arkansas or Orval Faubus.”
“This holocaust and this murder has been meant to spark a response by the African American community to say ‘oh no,’ we are not going to try to integrate schools anymore, we are going to try to remain separate but equal, but we are going to halt this desegregation operation,” Lawrence stated.
Seven of the 21 boys were buried privately by their families at the time of the occurrence, while the other 14 were allegedly buried in a mass grave. The state of Arkansas paid for a brief funeral and burial.
Lawrence just uncovered the site of the unmarked graves at Haven of Rest in the cemetery’s 1959 records, bringing the boys’ deaths back to the state’s notice.
A bronze plaque carved in stone now memorializes the names of all 21 victims, thanks to a grant from the Curtis Sykes Memorial Fund and other donations, and this was just in 2018.
Lawrence’s relatives claimed they only received $1,400 when the state Claims Commission awarded $2,500 to each of the 21 boys’ estates in 1959.
Meanwhile, Governor Faubus received thirty letters criticizing him for the fatalities, the majority of which came from outside the South.
A letter from Los Angeles to Faubus stated, “Your backing of a program of segregation and second-class citizenship for the Negro people helped to create this holocaust.”
“We believe that this regrettable mishandling of human life cannot be fully detached from the existing race attitudes and conflict under your administration,” writes a letter from London, England. This case’s psychological impact will be enormous in Europe. It’s the kind of stuff these people don’t readily forget.”
“I hope your measly heart can feel the ache of the race hatred you as a leader of your gang started last fall,” someone from Virginia wrote.
“You are just as culpable as if you had struck the match,” says a Detroit resident.