Ground above the coffins that hold 14 black boys who burned to death while held at, in essence, a juvenile labor camp sat bare for 59 years. On Saturday, that wrong was righted.
An early-morning fire broke out inside a dormitory of the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville on May 5, 1959.
The building was locked from the outside, and meshed steel screens covered windows. No adult was around. Forty-eight of the children fought their way to safety. Twenty-one boys perished.
On Saturday, about 50 people gathered at the Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock to unveil a bronze marker to honor the dead at the site where 14 of the boys were buried.
"Think, if you will," said state Sen. Irma Hunter Brown, D-Little Rock, "the reason they are here is because they could not be identified. Their bodies were so charred and mangled."
The marker was funded in part by the Black History Commission of Arkansas, with the help of the Friends of Haven of Rest Cemetery Inc. It bears the names and residences of all 21 victims:
Frank Barnes, R.D. Brown, Jessie Carpenter Jr., Joe Charles Crittenden, Lindsey Cross, Henry Daniels, John Daniel, John Alfred George, Amos Gyce, Roy Hegwood, Willie C. Horner, O.F. Meadows, Willie Piggie, Roy Chester Powell, Cecil Preston, Charles R. Thomas, Carl E. Thornton, Johnny Tillison, Edward Tolston, Charles White, Willie Lee Williams.
"Industrial School" is a misnomer. Boys who were held there were forced to work from sunrise to sunset, and they were beaten, said Brian Keith Mitchell, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Rats invaded the boys' food supply.
Fresh water was nonexistent, he said. Each child was given only one set of clothing, and there was no laundry, Mitchell said.
Many of the boys held at the facility, which sat at what is now the Arkansas Department of Correction's Wrightsville Unit, had committed no crimes or only petty thefts, Mitchell said. Children were sent there for truancy or for riding bikes.
"Many of them were picked up for not having a place to live and merely being homeless," he told the crowd.
Johnny Hasan, who attended the remembrance, said he thanked God every day for the actions of his relatives. In 1959, before the fire, he got in trouble and was told he'd be sent to Wrightsville.
Instead, his grandmother and aunt got the 12-year-old on a bus to Detroit, Hasan said.
In the aftermath of the fire, the buck was passed. The "villains" became the black administrators, relieving pressure from Gov. Orval Faubus, Mitchell said.
A grand jury found that state employees, the Legislature, the governor and even the surrounding community were responsible, but no indictment was ever filed.
"What the newspapers told them was that they died from benign neglect," Mitchell said. But through horrific working conditions, the wrongful arrest of black boys and chronic underfunding, the "die was cast" long before 1959, he said.
"It isn't benign neglect that killed them," Mitchell said. "It was racism."
Herman Williams, the former assistant director of all Arkansas juvenile facilities, said he compares "some of the apathy of our elected officials then to the apathy of some of our elected officials today."
He took his preteen and teenage sons to the ceremony Saturday to show them that "right now is always the time to do right," he said.
Ardecy Gyce, the sister of Amos Gyce, traveled from Oklahoma City to be at her brother's grave site. She was young when he died but said she remembered him as a loving sibling.
"He was always protective of me," Gyce said.
Michael Young stood tall as he placed the ceremonial wreath, adorned with fabric sunflowers and blossoms, beside the bronze marker inset into a stone.
Young's brother was incarcerated at the Wrightsville facility for truancy. The only reason he missed the fire was because he ran off beforehand, Young said.
Young, himself, was held in at the facility after the fire, first for six months and then again for a year. Survivors of the fire shared their stories with him, though it was always kept somewhat "undercover," Young said.
"My life was running parallel with theirs," he said.
After leaving, he became a charter bus driver and also worked with Volunteers of America. Now, he's married and retired in Shreveport.
"I never would have dreamed that this would have occurred," Young said, looking at the grave marker that bears the name of a boy from his neighborhood, that could have borne the name of his brother.
"I feel that I'm a part of what happened."
History professor Brian Keith Mitchell tells the crowd Saturday that youths held at the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School were beaten and forced to work from sunrise to sunset.
Metro on 04/22/2018
Print Headline: Marker placed at last for lost boys; Ceremony remembers 21 deaths in fire at lockup in 1959