The mysterious fire that killed 21 boys locked inside their school dormitory in 1959

Mildred Europa Taylor Feb 13, 2020 at 11:30am

February 13, 2020 at 11:30 am | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

February 13, 2020 at 11:30 am | History

Was it gross negligence that led to the death of the boys or were they burned alive intentionally?

After 60 years, some believe it’s the latter, considering events before, during and after the 1959 tragic incident at the Arkansas reform school in Wrightsville.

In the 1950s, blacks were still denied full integration into society under Jim Crow laws. Arkansas had been in the forefront of desegregation during this period when its governor made headlines with some unfortunate actions.

Orval Faubus, in 1957, used the military to disallow the entry of nine black students into Little Rock Central High School despite a ruling declaring the segregation of public schools as unconstitutional.

Two years after, a mysterious fire will engulf the Wrightsville dormitory, killing 21 out of 69 black boys who had been locked from the outside, and sparking comments that Arkansas did not really value the life of its black residents.

The fire mysteriously ignited around 4:00 a.m. on a cold, wet morning, at the reform school otherwise known as the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School (NBIS) on March 5, 1959.

The night before the incident, 69 African-American boys, ages 13 to 17, were padlocked into the school’s dormitory for the night. The following morning, the fire had started, forcing the boys to claw their way out of the burning building that had been locked from the outside.

Amidst the choking, heat and smoke, 48 children, aged 13 to 17, managed to claw their way out by knocking out two of the window screens of the building, leaving 21 inside.

By morning when the smoke cleared, the 21 boys who burned to death were found piled on top of one another in the corner of the dormitory.

The horrible incident, which some would like to term as a holocaust, brought attention to the reform school that had largely been forgotten in a Jim Crow era.

Founded in 1923, the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School (NBIS) was a juvenile work farm located first outside Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and then, in the mid-1930s, outside of Wrightsville, according to Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

The black institution was for orphaned boys, the homeless or those who had engaged in alleged petty crimes. Three years before the fire, a report by sociologist Gordon Morgan documented what was termed horrific conditions at Wrightsville.

“Many boys go for days with only rags for clothes. More than half of them wear neither socks nor underwear during [the winter] of 1955–56….[It is] not uncommon to see youths going for weeks without bathing or changing clothes,” the 1956 report said.

It added that there was no laundry equipment while a single thirty-gallon hot water tank served the bathing needs of the entire population. Employees had to bring their own water to work as the water was not drinkable. Such was the deplorable conditions at the reform school in which the boys lived.

“The conditions were to a point where when 69 boys all go to bed at night, in a space barely big enough for them to move around 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 the victim of the 1959 fire, who has been trying to explore the circumstances surrounding the fire, once said.

Records say that prior to the fire, Governor Faubus toured the Wrightsville school and saw the conditions in which the boys lived but didn’t recommend any change.

Yet, the morning after the fire, the media reported that he “appeared disturbed by the death of the 21 boys, calling the fire, ‘inexcusable’.”

He immediately called for a hearing to find out those who may have been responsible for the deaths of the boys. The staff of the school and its superintendent Lester R. Gaines gave accounts of what occurred that night of the fire, adding that the boys had been locked with no one around to supervise them.

A report by Flickr said Lee Andrew Austin, the livestock supervisor, indicated that “he’d 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.”

The Pulaski County Grand Jury subsequently found that several individuals and agencies were responsible, but it returned no criminal charges.

In its final report, the grand jury made the following statement:

“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.”

But Lawrence disagrees. “It was a carefully calculated murder that involved 21 boys but was designed to kill 69 that were housed inside of this dormitory,” said Lawrence, who has been trying to solve the mystery.

“The science of preserving a crime scene was in existence in 1959. Yet the very morning these boys were killed, they were dismantling this whole scene with hoses, rakes and shovels. They were tearing it apart like they were trying to cover up something,” he said.

“Everyone wants to conclude that it was an accident to prevent putting more embarrassment on the state of Arkansas or Orval Faubus.”

“This holocaust and this murder is a seminal event that has been designed to trigger an action 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 be separate but equal but we are going to stop this desegregation activity,” said Lawrence.

At the time of the incident, seven of the 21 boys were buried privately by their families while the other 14 were supposedly buried in a mass grave. A brief funeral and burial were paid for by the state of Arkansas.

The location of the unmarked graves at Haven of Rest was discovered in the 1959 records of the cemetery by Lawrence recently, bringing the deaths of the boys again to the attention of the state.

Following a grant from the Curtis Sykes Memorial Fund and other donations, a bronze plaque embedded in stone now memorializes the names of all 21 victims, and this happened only two years ago.

Photo: arktimes.com

Even when the state Claims Commission awarded $2,500 to the estates of each of the 21 boys in 1959, relatives of Lawrence said they only received $1,400 dollars.

Meanwhile, Governor Faubus received thirty letters from citizens, mostly from outside the South who criticized him for the deaths.

“Your support of a policy of segregation and of second-class citizenship for the Negro people helped to create this holocaust,” said a letter to Faubus from Los Angeles.

From London, England: “We feel that this unfortunate mishandling of human lives cannot be wholly divorced from the prevailing race attitudes and conflict under your administration. The psychological impact of this case will be terrific here in Europe. It is the sort of thing these people do not forget easily.”

From Virginia: “I hope your measly heart is capable of feeling the sting of the race hate you as a leader of your gang started last fall.”

From Detroit: “You are just as responsible as if you had struck the match.”

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