Finally, a memorial to the 21 boys who were burned to death at Wrightsville in '59 | Arkansas Blog

Finally, a memorial to the 21 boys who were burned to death at Wrightsville in '59

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Ardecy  Gyce, whose brother Amos was one of 21 boys burned to death in a locked dormitory at the Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville, stands by a memorial to the boys at Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.
  • Ardecy Gyce, whose brother Amos was one of 21 boys burned to death in a locked dormitory at the Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville, stands by a memorial to the boys at Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.

It has been 59 years since 21 teen-aged boys incarcerated at the so-called Negro Boys Industrial School were burned to death in their locked dormitory. The Times wrote about the event in 2008, after the brother and mother of one of the boys approached the Times looking for someone to remember the event, and headlined the story "Stirring the Ashes." But on Saturday, a monument to the boys was placed at Haven of Rest Cemetery, where 14 of the boys were buried.

The boys were sent to Wrightsville for petty theft, pranks, homelessness. One boy had been caught soaping windows during Halloween. Another was incarcerated for riding a white boy's bicycle, even though the white boy's mother told authorities it was all right.

It was early in the morning of March 5, 1959, when a fire in a stove spread to the "Big Boys" dorm, which had only two exits, both padlocked. Some boys escaped by prying loose metal metal screens from two dorm windows. No one came to their aid. Many bodies were found piled in a heap in one corner of the room.

The building burned to the ground. The Arkansas Democrat, then an afternoon paper, ran a picture of the fire on its front page. The Arkansas Gazette ran a photo of Gov. Orval Faubus, standing amid the rubble the following morning.

The bodies of the 14 buried at Haven of Rest were so badly burned that they could not be individually identified. The other seven boys were buried privately.



Helping stir the ashes and ignite the effort to create a monument to the fire was the 2017 book by Grif Stockley, "Black  Boys Burning." Stockley told the crowd that Arkansas's "racial history is still hidden and glossed over, but by your commitment to honor and remember the boys who died in the fire at Wrightsville,  you’ve taken a giant step toward coming to terms with that past."

Former Sen. Irma Hunter Brown, who leads the Friends of the Haven of Rest and who was part of a group that raised funds for the monument, told the gathered group gathered graveside, "We don’t want this to be a forgotten part of the history of Little Rock, of the state of Arkansas, of this country, because the entire world looked at what happened here. This part of our history, as painful as it is, will always be remembered."

UA Little Rock history professor Dr. Brian Mitchell spoke, saying, "If you look honestly at the situation the conclusion we come to is that these boys died of racism, the same racism we live with today. The "benign neglect" [as the state termed the incident] that allowed them to lock up these children is a consequence of that racism, the same consequence we have when legislators tell us we need to close SNAP programs for children, the same neglect we have when we're told that there’s not enough money for our schools, the same same when a grand jury says there will be no justice in black shootings. ... It isn't benign neglect that killed them. It is racism."

Michael Young
, who was himself incarcerated at Wrightsville, laid the wreath. Ardecy Gyce, sister of victim Amos Gyce, who was 16 when he died, spoke briefly. She recalled Amos as a "loving brother who was always protective of me."

The location of the unmarked graves at Haven of Rest was turned up in the 1959 records of the cemetery by the brother who approached the Times, Frank Lawrence. Thanks to a grant from the Curtis Sykes Memorial Fund distributed by the Black History Commission and other donations, a bronze plaque embedded in a stone now memorializes the names of all 21 victims. The architect Kwendeche and former Mosaic Templars Cultural Center director Constance Sarto put together the grant application.

Those buried at Haven of Rest include Lindsey Cross, 14; Charles L. Thomas, 15; Frank Barnes, 15; R.D. Brown, 16; Jessie Carpenter Jr., 16; Joe Crittenden, 16; John Daniel, 16; Willie G. Horner, 16; Roy Chester Powell, 16; Cecil Preston, 17; Carl E. Thornton, 15; Johnnie Tillison, 16; Edward Tolston Jr., 15; and Charles White, 15.

The others were William Piggee, 13, the boy incarcerated for riding a white boy's bike;  O.T. Meadows, 13; Henry Daniels, 15; John Alfred George, 15; Roy Hegwood, 15; Willie Lee Williams, 15; and Gyce.


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