THV Extra: Arkansas' Secret Holocaust

    11:10 PM, Feb 4, 2008   |    comments
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    It's a piece of Arkansas’ past, but you won't find it in most history books. It’s one of the state's worst fires on record. Fifty years ago, the dormitory at Arkansas' Negro Boys' Industrial School in Wrightsville caught fire. 48 boys narrowly escaped, 21 others didn't. Each headstone at Haven Rest Cemetery tells a story. Some people come to grieve, but Luvenia Lawrence has come for answers. "Ain't no way in the world they could get out," says Lawrence. Lawrence's son Lindsey Cross died 49 years ago in one of Arkansas' worst fires on record. "He didn't give me a bit of trouble, sweet as he could be sure was," says Lawrence. But trouble found Cross. At 15, he was accused of stealing and a judge sentenced him to time at Arkansas' Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville. It’s a state run school for teen boy's convicted of minor offenses. "He was a nice boy he was just kind of easy to be persuaded by other kids," says Lawrence. March 5, 1959, before dawn, the dormitory at the school caught fire. The two doors leading out of the room were locked. "I didn't understand what he meant when he said they had the doors locked, so I guess that's what he was telling me. They had two doors locked between them,” says Lawrence. Newspaper interviews reveal witness testimonies. One survivor said he saw clusters of children fighting to get out the window. Forty-eight boys escaped by forcing metal screens off two windows, but 21 others died. Fourteen children were found stacked on top of each other at the southwest corner of the dorm, burned beyond recognition. At the time authorities said, these children were buried at the Haven Rest Cemetery in a massive now unmarked grave. "I'm just trying to help my child. He's dead and can't help himself. I'm just trying to do the best I can. That's all I can do,” says Lawrence. Through the years, the cemetery has had several owners, and without a headstone the new grounds keeper Sam Jarvis can only estimate where the bodies are. Frank Lawrence has invited UALR film students to help him with a documentary "Arkansas’ Secret Holocaust" about the children who died in the fire, including his big brother Lindsey Cross. "It's certainly not designed to indict Jim Crow. It's not designed to put blame or to make a negative kind of statement about the state I was born and raised in and love very dearly, but closure needs to be obtained because you've got 21 boys all intents and purposes have been forgotten," says Lawrence. Nearly 50 years later, the land where the industrial school stood now houses an Arkansas Department of Corrections men's boot camp. There aren't any plaques or markings to indicate that the Industrial Boy's School was ever there, but the 21 children who died there are not forgotten. In fact the people there who we have spoken to say the story of the fire has been passed on throughout the years, like folklore, but the actual details surrounding the tragic event, are harder to come by. At the request of then Governor Orval Faubus a committee investigated the fire and found the school, the state and the community responsible for the children's deaths, but it didn't recommend a punishment and somehow the story faded into the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. "History and time both can cure any problem that you have, but unfortunately history is the only one of the two that can repeat itself," says Lawrence. Frank Lawrence hopes his documentary will answer his and his mother's questions and help keep the history of the Wrightsville fire from repeating itself. The Lawrence family isn't convinced Lindsey Cross or the other 14 boys, were ever actually buried at the Haven Rest Cemetery. They say authorities wouldn't allow anyone to see the bodies, so they plan to ask the courts for an excavation.

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