Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought forensic science to popular culture with the creation of Sherlock Holmes in the late 1800s. Erle Stanley Gardner would add to the canon by creating Perry Mason, the defense attorney made famous by Raymond Burr in the late days of the golden age of television.
The invention of photography was a boon to the burgeoning field of forensic science, first being used to record a crime scene in 1864. Alphonse Bertillon, a French policeman, is considered the father of forensic science and was “one of the first to systematize the use of photography at crime scenes in France.”
Thus the actions of investigators in Wrightsville, Arkansas, almost 100 years later appear highly suspect.
On 05 March 1959, 21 Black boys were burned to death in a dormitory fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville, located about 15 miles from Little Rock, the state capitol.
A total of 69 Black boys, aged 13 to 17, had been locked in their room overnight from the outside. A mysterious fire began at 4 am, “forcing the boys to fight and claw their way out of the burning building.”
The morning after the fire, men “were dismantling this whole scene with hoses, rakes and shovels,” according to author Frank Lawrence.
The boys in the school were committed for being orphaned, homeless or for committing offenses described as mischief and alleged petty crimes. The school and the treatment of the children became a fiery representation of segregation within the South during the Jim Crow Era.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, in 1956 sociologist Gordon Morgan had documented conditions at the facility:
Many boys go for days with only rags for clothes. More than half of them wear neither socks nor underwear during [the winter] of 1955–56….[It is] not uncommon to see youths going for weeks without bathing or changing clothes.
Two years before the fire, Arkansas was in the national spotlight when Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to block integration of Little Rock’s all-White Central High School. On 04 September 1957, the Arkansas National Guard prevented any of the students (who became known as the Little Rock Nine) from starting school.
On 25 September 25, President Eisenhower deployed 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. He put them in charge of the 10,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen. The Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes escorted by these soldiers.
Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, had declared segregated public schools unconstitutional on 17 May 1954.
No one was held legally responsible for the 21 deaths. A grand jury determined that the State of Arkansas, the state legislature and the correctional facility bore responsibility for the incident but failed to indict anyone.
In 2019, Arkansas prison officials commemorated the lives of 21 teenage boys who died by placing “a small stone marker” on the grounds of the former school, which is now a prison. They are Frank Barnes, R.D. Brown, Jessie Carpenter Jr., Joe Charles Crittenden, Lindsey Cross, John Daniel, Henry Daniels, John Alfred George, Amos Gyce, Roy Hegwood, Willie C. Horner, O.T. Meadows, Willie Piggee, Roy Chester Powell, Cecil Preston, Charles Thomas, Carl E. Thornton, Johnny Tillison, Edward Tolston, Charles White and Willie Lee Williams.
In February 2020, Death by Design: The Secret Holocaust of Wrightsville, Arkansas debuted at Little Rock’s Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.