March 5th, 1959, 69 African American boys, ages 13 to 17, were padlocked into their dormitory for the night at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville. Around 4 a.m., a fire mysteriously ignited, forcing the boys to fight and claw their way out of the burning building. It’s an event in history possibly forgotten or unknown by many, but it’s that moment that claimed the life of 21 boys.
“It was a carefully calculated murder that involved 21 boys but was designed to kill 69 that were housed inside of this dormitory,” said Frank Lawrence. He has made it his life’s mission to uncover the truth surrounding what he calls Arkansas’ “secret holocaust,”.
When the smoke cleared that March morning in 1959, the boys’ who burned to death were found piled on top of one another in the corner of the dormitory. The 48 who had survived managed to escape by prying off mesh metal screens from two windows.
The horrific event briefly made headlines that also brought attention to the squalor and deplorable conditions 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,” said Lawrence.
“The boys went around in rags. They had one 30-gallon water tank for them to take baths,” said Stockley. The boys in the school were committed for being orphaned, homeless or for committing offenses described as mischief and alleged petty crimes. In an ironic twist, the land in which the school stood is now the Arkansas Department of Correction Facility Wrightsville Unit where you won’t find a plaque to indicate the boys ever lived or died there.
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