CNN unveiled a podcast late last month on the fire that killed 21 boys locked inside the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville in 1959. It’s called “Up from the Grave” and is hosted by Don Lemon, who says in the first episode that the story came to him from a CNN producer from Arkansas, who learned of the tragedy via social media and was amazed that she’d never heard of it before.
CNN bills it as the network’s “first ever original audio immersion 3-D podcast,” whatever that means.
UA Little Rock professors Brian Mitchell and John Kirk are featured in the first episode.
The state Department of Correction unveiled a memorial on the grounds of its Wrightsville unit, where the fire took place, in April. A year earlier, the deaths were memorialized with a plaque in Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.
The University Press of Mississippi published Grif Stockley’s “Black Boys Burning: The 1959 Fire at Arkansas Negro Boys Industrial School” in 2017.
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 14 were teenagers when they burned to death in a fire March 5, 1959, at the Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville. In all, 21 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.”