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Tragedy requires remembering

Deaths in 1959 stark reminder of racist mentality by Tom Dillard | February 17, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

Grif Stockley is the racial conscience of Arkansas. Though he had a long career as a public service lawyer in Little Rock, during the past 20 years Stockley has taken it upon himself to document the age-old story of how black Arkansans have been systematically oppressed by the white race. His latest book, Black Boys Burning (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) is a searing recounting of a 1959 fire at the Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville which killed 21 young African-American men. But this book is far more than an account of the fire; it is nothing less than an indictment of the whole racist mentality which allowed white Arkansans to relegate black people to a permanent state of impoverished servitude throughout our history.

The early morning hours of March 5, 1959, were cold and wet when a dormitory at the Negro Boys Industrial School caught fire. In a matter of minutes, the badly deteriorated structure was engulfed in flames, trapping 69 black boys ages 13 to 17 in an inferno. The doors were locked, and no staff members were on duty in the dormitory that night. The windows were covered by heavy screens, so it is a miracle that 48 boys were able to escape.

The fire occurred at a time when Little Rock, and all of Arkansas for that matter, was still reeling from the massive damage done to the city and state by the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis less than two years earlier. The man behind the 1957 crisis, Gov. Orval E. Faubus, was still governor -- having been re-elected by a landslide only a few months before the fire.

Stockley makes it clear that the NBIS fire was is in its own way a better lens to view the Jim Crow era than the 1957 crisis: "... The history of the Negro Boys Industrial School and the investigations and conclusions reached by the various institutions and bodies surrounding the deaths of the boys present an opportunity to analyze this era from a standpoint other than the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis in 1957, which has become a cottage industry for scholars."

The white power structure should not have been surprised by the fire. A visit to the school by a five-person committee in 1952 found that 46 of the 60 inmates were receiving no education at all, a situation that did not prevail at the white boys reformatory. The boys were found to be dressed in filthy clothing, and sheets and pillow cases were practically nonexistent. It would later be admitted that the school had no laundry facilities. The well water given to the boys was so bad that the staff brought their own drinking water. Most important, the committee found "the great need is more staff for better training and supervision of the boys."

Education and supervision were not a priority at the NBIS. The school was actually little more than a farm where the boys were expected to grow cotton, corn and soybeans -- with the income going into the state treasury. Stockley noted that "Wrightsville had all the hallmarks of a junior prison work farm in the making."

The passage of time did nothing to ameliorate the situation. In 1956 a black sociology graduate student named Gordon Morgan wrote a master's thesis on the NBIS, and what a stark scene he documented. "Many boys go for days with only rags for clothes," Morgan wrote. He continued: "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."

Morgan found that two of the boys at the school were only 10 years of age. Most of the boys were sentenced for burglary or truancy, Morgan wrote. He also noted that the boys were frequently punished with a leather strap.

Morgan, who would go on in 1969 to become one of the first two black faculty members at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, called attention to the poor condition of the school buildings: "All building on the campus are in need of extensive repairs, particularly the boys' living quarters."

Gov. Faubus had done almost nothing to benefit the school. Indeed, he reduced the NBIS budget by $7,100 during his first term.

Perhaps it was because he had failed to heed the warnings that Gov. Faubus moved quickly to insulate himself from any political fallout from the fire. While Faubus seems to have been legitimately horrified by the NBIS fire, he placed as much emphasis on insulating himself from responsibility as he did on getting to the bottom of the tragedy.

On the morning of the fire Faubus indignantly placed blame for the fire on the black school superintendent, Lester R. Gaines. And it seems that Gaines did deserve at least part of the blame. He had failed to name a substitute when the staff member who lived in the boy's dormitory had been hospitalized -- meaning that the doors could not be unlocked when the fire erupted.

Ultimately, the school board fired the superintendent and two other employees. Eleven other employees resigned in solidarity with Gaines. Faubus then referred the matter to the prosecuting attorney.

A grand jury was empanelled and issued a stinging report placing the blame "on a lot of shoulders," including the board of directors, the superintendent and his staff "who perhaps continued to do the best they could in a resigned fashion"; the various governors "one right after another through the past years, who allowed conditions to become so disreputable"; the General Assembly, "who should have been so ashamed of conditions"; and "finally on the people of Arkansas, who did nothing about it." But no one was held accountable in a court of law.

Adding insult to the loss suffered by the families of the dead boys, the State Claims Commission offered only a few hundred dollars to heirs of the deceased. Attorneys who handled the claims, all of whom were white, were awarded as much as 50 percent of the total damages.

Sadly, 14 of the dead boys were so badly burned that they could not be recognized, and they were interred in a mass grave which remains unmarked to this day.

Buy a copy of Black Boys Burning and follow up by reading Stockley's magnum opus, Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present (UA Press, 2009). We owe it to those dead black boys, and we owe it to all the children of the future.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]

NAN Profiles on 02/17/2019

Print Headline: Tragedy requires remembering

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