Black American history is a hodgepodge and digging into the past can be both enlightening and heartbreaking at the same time.
Stories from the past that represent Black people show the good, and others show the bad, but every once in a while you come across a tale so terrifying, that you would think the devil himself was behind it.
In this episode of Black Folklore, we uncover the horrific 1959 story of 21 Black boys trapped and burned alive inside a school built to educate them.
This is the story of the Negro Boys Industrial School Fire of 1959.
Deemed one of Arkansas’ greatest mysteries, the history of the 1959 fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School is still an enigma.
Who would lock innocent Black teenage boys into a building and set it on fire? The thought seems unimaginable, but it happened.
In the 1950s, Arkansas was ground zero for the segregation of public schools in America. The historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case of 1954 declared that all laws establishing segregated schools were unconstitutional, calling for schools throughout the nation to be desegregated.
After the court’s major decision, the NAACP began registering Black students in schools that were previously all-white. The city of Little Rock in Arkansas was one of the first cities to agree to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, and by 1957 nine Black students were selected to attend previously all-white Little Rock Central High. The students would be known as the Little Rock Nine.
On Sept. 4, 1957, the Little Rock Nine arrived at Little Rock Central High School hoping to just focus on school. Instead, they were hounded by an angry racist mob of white students trying to keep them out. The angry white mob, which consisted of students, parents, and Little Rock citizens, yelled racial slurs and physical threats at the Black students, trying their best to keep them out of their schools. Arkansas Governor Orval M. Faubus even tried to use the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine students out of the school.
The terror these nine Black students faced trying to go to a new school was horrific, but the violence and hatred wouldn’t end with the Little Rock Nine. Just a few years later, the Negro Boys Industrial School, an alternative school for Black boys in Wrightsville would suffer an even worse fate.
On March 5, 1959, at 4 a.m. when the school was asleep, 69 Black students ages 13 to 17, were padlocked inside the dormitories of the Negro Boys Industrial School and the dorms mysteriously set ablaze. The boys fought and struggled to survive the burning building, clawing their way to safety by prying off mesh metal screens from two windows.
The next morning, the bodies of 21 Black boys were found piled on top of each other in the corner of the burned dormitory.
“It was a carefully calculated murder that involved 21 boys but was designed to kill 69 that were housed inside of this dormitory,” Frank Lawrence, the brother of one of the boys trapped in the fire told ABC 7. “No one ever knew it existed because the ability of the state of Arkansas to do such a fantastic job to cover it up.”
Forty-eight Black boys survived the horrible incident.
In Griffin Stockley’s book Black Boys Burning, he explores the history of the school, the events leading up to the fire, and the aftermath.
“Most of the boys that were killed had run back to a corner of the building. If you look at the diagram, you can see that although there were a couple of doors, in fact, we know there was no one there to unlock the doors,” said Stockley.
According to some reports, police never investigated what or who could have caused the fire.
From ABC 7:
The school’s staff and Superintendent L.R. Gains all gave their accounts of what happened that night of the fire, noting that the boys had been locked in and left unsupervised for the night. Conversely, The Pulaski County Grand Jury found that numerous individuals and agencies were responsible, but ultimately, they returned no criminal charges.
Stockley’s book also revealed that the school more closely resembled a prison farm, complete with whippings and poor hygiene.
“Until we come to terms with the kind of white supremacy that has been a part of Arkansas history and southern history, then we’re not going to understand how to prevent these events,” said Stockley.
This sad and unsolved murder is still top of mind for many Wrightsville residents.
In 2018, a memorial plaque listing the names of the boys who died was placed on a stone near the location of the boy’s unmarked graves. Although a step in the right direction, this tragedy needs more light so we can make sure something like this never happens again.
The memory of the 1959 Fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School should never be forgotten.
From Arkansas Times:
Those buried at Haven of Rest include Lindsey Cross, 14; Charles L. Thomas, 15; Frank Barnes, 15; R.D. Brown, 16; Jessie Carpenter Jr., 16; Joe Crittenden, 16; John Daniel, 16; Willie G. Horner, 16; Roy Chester Powell, 16; Cecil Preston, 17; Carl E. Thornton, 15; Johnnie Tillison, 16; Edward Tolston Jr., 15; and Charles White, 15.
The others were William Piggee, 13, the boy incarcerated for riding a white boy’s bike; O.T. Meadows, 13; Henry Daniels, 15; John Alfred George, 15; Roy Hegwood, 15; Willie Lee Williams, 15; and Gyce.
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