In 1959, sixty-nine African American teenage boys were padlocked into their dormitory for the night at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville, Arkansas. Twenty-one died in a mysterious fire that night. These are the survivors.
Fourteen bodies lie side by side and unmarked in a mass grave at Haven of Rest Cemetery on Twelfth Street. The only proof of their burial is a page from the graveyard’s 1959 records.
The fourteen were teenagers when they burned to death in a fire March 5, 1959, at the Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville. In all, twenty-one boys between the ages of 13 and 16 perished, incinerated in a dorm room whose doors were padlocked on the outside.
The teens had been incarcerated (“Industrial School” was euphemistic) for homelessness, petty theft and pranks — one boy had been caught soaping windows during Halloween. Many were products of broken homes and turned over by their parents. Forty-eight of the boys who were in the “Big Boys Dorm” managed to escape what press reports called the “holocaust.”
Seven boys had private funerals. The remaining 14 — burned so badly their bodies could not be identified individually — were buried five days after the fire, their interment paid for by the state of Arkansas. During the funeral, the Arkansas Gazette reported, a mother cried out, “Oh Lord! You done burned up my baby!”
In her anguish, she may have blamed the Lord. But a Pulaski County grand jury finding issued the following September said the state employees in charge of the training school, the legislature, the governor and even “the people of Arkansas, who did nothing about” conditions at the decrepit facility, were responsible for the deaths. The General Assembly should have been “ashamed,” the grand jury report said.
Responsible — but not liable. The grand jury returned no indictment. No criminal charges were ever filed, despite the fact that Gov. Orval Faubus, standing by the smoldering ruins at dawn the day of the fire, declared the tragedy “inexcusable.”
Forty-nine years later, the event is little remembered. But Luvenia Lawrence, 81, whose son, Lindsey Cross, died in the fire, and Lindsey’s brother Frank Lawrence, who was 4 years old when his brother perished, remember. They found the record of the graves at Haven of Rest. At their request, the graves, hard by a ditch, are now marked with yellow flagging tape.
Frank Lawrence, who plans to make a documentary film about the event, has taken the story to print and television media in Little Rock. Two TV stations have aired interviews with Lawrence in recent weeks, and he’s working with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to record the story there.
At one time, Luvenia Lawrence says, a stone at Rest Haven marked the graves. A stone would be a start in reminding the people of Arkansas of the terrible event, she and her son say.
Lindsey Cross was 15 when he was trapped by the fire. He’d been sent to Wrightsville after a neighbor of the Lawrences — in the Tie Plant area of North Little Rock — told authorities he’d stolen money from a store’s cash register while two other boys distracted the white owner.
Luvenia Lawrence said she could only remember going to “an office” before her son was sent to Wrightsville. It seemed strange to her that there had been no trial.
But there wouldn’t have been. It took a lawsuit, filed by Grif Stockley for Legal Aid in the late 1980s, to create legal redress for juveniles in Arkansas. Until then, county judges had jurisdiction, appointing referees (usually not lawyers) to decide the fate of juveniles. Pulaski County’s referee — Judith Rogers, who later became a juvenile judge — testified for Stockley. In 1987, the state Supreme Court ruled the system unconstitutional and ordered juvenile cases heard in chancery courts (now circuit courts).
Also buried at Haven of Rest: Charles L. Thomas, 15, of Little Rock; Frank Barnes, 15, Lake Village; R.D. Brown, 16, Emerson; Jessie Carpenter Jr., 16, Forrest City; Joe Crittenden, 16, Blytheville; John Daniel, 16, El Dorado; Willie G. Horner, 16, North Little Rock; Roy Chester Powell, 16, Forrest City; Cecil Preston, 17, Blytheville; Carl E. Thornton, 15, North Little Rock; Johnnie Tillison, 16, LaGrange (Lee County); Edward Tolston Jr., 15, Wilmot, and Charles White, 15, Malvern.
Two of the dead boys were only 13 years old. One of those children, William Loyd Piggee of DeWitt, had been sent to Wrightsville after he’d been seen riding a bike that belonged to a white boy.
But William Piggee often rode that bike, which had belonged to a white friend whose family his mother worked for. The friend had a new bike, and the two boys used to ride their bikes together.
The mother of the white boy had reported the bike stolen. But when she discovered William had taken it, she told authorities that it was all right for him to ride it. But, according to William’s brother, Larry Piggee of Houston, Texas, the police insisted that the bike was stolen and William had to pay. He paid big.
After the fire, “police came to our house at 5 a.m. and knocked on our door. They talked with my mother and father, told them they needed someone to come down and take a look.”
“They had a number of bodies stretched out,” Piggee said. His mother and father “picked out the body of a person that had a Bible in the breast pocket because my brother always carried one.”
Larry Piggee left Arkansas when he was 16. “I didn’t look at it as an accident myself,” he said of the fire.
The other 13-year-old who died was O.T. Meadows of El Dorado. The remaining dead were 15-year-olds Henry Daniels of Little Rock, John Alfred George of North Little Rock, Roy Hegwood of El Dorado, Willie Lee Williams of Helena and 16-year-old Amos Guice.
Most of the bodies were found piled in the corner farthest from the doors to the room.
Frank Lawrence doesn’t get sentimental standing over his brother’s grave. He doesn’t believe any of the coffins actually contain bodies. “Their ashes blew over Wrightsville,” he said. “They’re part of Wrightsville.”
The building burned entirely to the ground.
The fire broke out in what was known as the “Big Boys Dorm” between 3:15 a.m. and 4 a.m., news reports said. A vocational teacher who normally slept in a room next to the dorm had been in the hospital for two weeks before the fire broke out.
There were only two exits from the dorm, and both were padlocked, so that exit from the inside was impossible. The boys who escaped did so by prying loose mesh metal screens from two of the dorm windows.
The Arkansas Democrat, then an afternoon paper, ran a picture of the fire as it raged on its front page. A photograph of Faubus, standing amid the rubble by the window screens, accompanied the front page story in the Arkansas Gazette the following morning.
Stories told by employees of the Industrial School — all of whom were black — conflicted. School Superintendent L.R. Gaines first told the press the doors to the dorm had been locked, but later in the day said one door had been open. School farm manager Wilson Hall first said he’d been sleeping in the classroom adjacent to the dorm when the smoke woke him up, but later told the school board that he’d discovered the fire when he went to the building to make sure the substitute caretaker was there.
Hall said he found the dorm doors locked when he arrived, so he ran to the windows and “started pulling screens.”
“They were screaming and hollering in there,” the Gazette quoted Hall as saying. “You couldn’t make out any words or anything.”
Lee Andrew Austin, the livestock supervisor, told the board 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.
So though Hall, Austin and Gaines all had keys to the door, according to Gaines, none, apparently, was in the dorm when the blaze began.
A transcript of the school board’s interviews with school employees shows that the board believed Austin was negligent. “Isn’t it a fact that had you functioned properly, this tragedy would not have occurred?” chairman Alfred Smith asked Austin.
“Well, Mr. Smith,” Austin replied, “I would like to know how I could have prevented it.”
The Little Rock Fire Department — which initially declined to answer the call to the fire since it was outside the city limits — said the blaze probably started in the attic above the empty caretaker’s room off the classroom and close to the entrance to the dorm. One teen-ager died at the door to the dorm; when the door collapsed in the fire, the body fell partially into the classroom.
A survivor told the Gazette that the boys fought each other to get out the windows. “There was a whole lot of screaming,” he said. He saw four boys hitting at the mesh-covered windows trying to escape. The boys who did escape stood barefoot in the cold and stunned, watching as the building burned to the ground.
The Sunday after the Thursday fire, a headline in the Gazette proclaimed “Constant Fire Vigil Is Kept at White Industrial School.” The article quoted the superintendent of the school, located in Pine Bluff, as saying the building was fireproof, doors were never locked, and that the house parents never left the dorm at night.
Superintendent Gaines and his wife, Mary, a school teacher who was also on the payroll at Wrightsville, resigned in April. Gaines did not testify before the grand jury; he was reported in ill health and living in Chicago.
News of the fire made front pages across the nation. Faubus was already known to the country as the governor who’d sent troops to Central High to keep nine black students from attending school. News of the fire fueled national sentiment that Arkansas put little value on the life of its black residents.
A letter to Faubus from Los Angeles: “Your support of a policy of segregation and of second-class citizenship for the Negro people helped to create this holocaust.”
From “not a Negro”: “It sure must have made you happy to have those boys roasted alive.”
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.”
From California: “Each time I see in the newspaper a by-line [sic] ‘Little Rock, Arkansas’ I shudder, because I know it means another atrocity against the Negroes.”
Faubus also got a letter from a woman who had not heard whether her son had survived the fire. Later, she sent another letter, saying her son had helped boys escape and pleading for his release on that account.
What value did the state officially put on the life of black teen-agers?
Most of the survivors filed claims with the state Claims Commission seeking $25,000; one asked for $50,000 and there were claims for sums in between. The commission, ruling in September 1959, awarded $2,500 to the estates of each of the 21 boys. It reached that amount, it said, by reasoning that “negro boys, all minors, incarcerated … [were] contributing little and often nothing to the support of their parents. The Supreme Court of Arkansas has often affirmed the verdict of juries awarding $2,000 to $3,000 damages for the death of a child.”
It’s hard to say if the sum was out of line. In February 1960, the commission awarded a boy who was disfigured in a car accident caused by Highway Department negligence $5,000, in anticipation of future medical costs. But it gave only $6,138.71 to the widow of a man who’d plunged in his car from a bridge into Village Creek because the state Highway Department failed to erect a sign warning the bridge was out.
The commission found that the “direct and proximate cause of the death of the 20 [sic] decedents was the carelessness and negligence of the officers, agents and employees of the State of Arkansas, employed at the Arkansas Negro Boys’ Industrial School,” and cited the facts that the boys were locked in with no means of escape, that there were no buckets, water or fire extinguishers, fire drills or other safety precautions.
“The State in its composite wisdom has seen fit to create schools for both races and for both sexes commonly referred to as Industrial Schools, where youths may be sent for correctional training. It is the custom of Arkansas to place negro supervisors over the negro children under the supposition that members of that race would be best able to cope with the problem and give to their wards the best training available in order to prepare the inmates for worthy citizenship. … So far as the record in this case indicates the persons in authority had every right to believe that L.R. Gaines and his assistants would operate the school in a proper, safe and efficient manner. … However, on the night of said holocaust, L.R. Gaines and his staff ignored their duty to their wards … .”
Though commission records show that the family of Lindsey Cross was awarded $3,400 — the estate award plus $600 to Luvenia Lawrence for mental anguish and $300 to his estranged father, Charlie Cross — Lawrence says she only got $1,000, from a white man who showed up at her door one day and gave her a check.
She claims she took the check to the Square Deal Pawn Shop to cash it, where the owner, Robert Itzkowitz, asked, “Is this all Faubus gave you for killing your son?”
Total claims paid by the state ranged from $3,300 to $5,900.
In 2002, the Justice Department sued the state of Arkansas for deficiencies at the Alexander Youth Services Center (now the Arkansas Juvenile Treatment and Assessment Center).
The Alexander facility had racked up a number of incidents of neglect and abuse, including a couple of suicides, and had failed to provide adequate education. Also cited by the Justice Department: fire hazards. Under the terms of the 2003 settlement with the state, the Division of Youth Services agreed to install sprinklers in dormitories and educational facilities, smoke detection devices and fire alarms. It also agreed to train personnel in what to do in case of fire, and to remove flammable materials on which gas generators had been stored.
Frank Lawrence thinks the more people know about what happened in 1959, the more they’ll take an interest in what’s going on today.
Image: KATV Little Rock, Arkansas
Info: Arkansas Times