The state Correction Department, 60 years after the fact, will unveil a memorial on the grounds of its Wrightsville unit, the site March 5, 1959 of a fire that killed 21 boys locked inside the Negro Boys Industrial School.
The deaths were finally memorialized officially a year ago, with a plaque in Haven of Rest Cemetery where the remains of 14 were interred. The school was what used to be known as a reform school. Many of those held there were locked up for pranks or even homelessness. The Times wrote more extensively about the disaster in 2008.
A brief program is scheduled at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Wrightsville unit, where a memorial including a landscaped sitting area will be dedicated at the entrance to the unit. Family members of those killed and Grif Stockley, who wrote “Black Boys Burning” about the fire, will be among those in attendance.
Leslie Newell Peacock recounted the results of an investigation into the horror:
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.”
…Most of the survivors filed claims with the state Claims Commission seeking $25,000; one asked for $50,000 and there were claims for sums in between. The commission, ruling in September 1959, awarded $2,500 to the estates of each of the 21 boys. It reached that amount, it said, by reasoning that “negro boys, all minors, incarcerated … [were] contributing little and often nothing to the support of their parents. The Supreme Court of Arkansas has often affirmed the verdict of juries awarding $2,000 to $3,000 damages for the death of a child.”