UA Little Rock professors featured in CNN docuseries investigating tragic Wrightsville fire that left 21 black boys dead

UA Little Rock professors Dr. John Kirk and Dr. Brian Mitchell were featured in a CNN investigative podcast series about the 1959 Wrightsville fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School.

On March 5, 1959, a horrific fire broke out at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville, just 12 miles south of Little Rock, that left 21 children, ages 13 to 17, dead. 

Around 4 a.m., the fire started, and 69 African-American boys were padlocked into their dormitory with no way out. What followed was a harrowing struggle for survival, as the boys fought and clawed their way out by prying off mesh metal screens to escape out two windows.

It’s a significant event that has largely been forgotten in Arkansas’s turbulent racial history, according to Dr. John Kirk, director of UA Little Rock’s Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity and Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History.

“The CNN podcasts put the Wrightsville fire tragedy in perspective of the wider context of post-World War II race relations and what was happening in Little Rock and Arkansas at that time,” Kirk said. “The 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High School has represented the landscape of race relations during that period. The Wrightsville fire took place just a few years after that and is often overlooked.” 

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Wrightsville fire, CNN created its first-ever original audio immersion 3-D podcast series. Narrated by CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon, “Up From the Grave” tells the story of one of the deadliest fires in Arkansas’s history.

“That fire extinguished the lives of 21 boys-48 barely escaped-after being padlocked inside their dorm room at a reform school,” the podcast website states. “Sixty years later, through comprehensive reporting, bombshell interviews of experts, one survivor, and three sisters who lost their brothers in the fire, CNN examines what happened that dreadful night, and in the day following reveals how the state handles the investigation.”

Two UA Little Rock professors, Kirk and Dr. Brian Mitchell, assistant professor of history, were featured as experts in the podcast series that ran June 24-28.

“From the local level to the national level and beyond, our research is being used by different users in lots of different ways, even by major news organizations like CNN. This shows how our research is making an impact in the world,” Kirk said.

After the fire, it was revealed that the children had been living in subpar conditions.

“To call it a boys industrial school is a major misnomer,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t really a school. It was a penal work farm. Most of the children were jailed for petty offenses like theft, vagrancy, and truancy. At the time of the fire, there was very little education going on. Instead, the children were exploited for their labor and were kept in deplorable conditions.”

After the tragedy, 14 of the children were buried in a mass grave at the Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock. Their bodies were so badly burned that they could not be identified. Following an investigation, a Pulaski County grand jury found that many individuals and agencies were responsible for the fire. They placed blamed on everyone from the school’s superintendent and staff, board of directors, the state’s governor and General Assembly, and the people of Arkansas. Yet, no criminal charges were ever filed.

“We may never know the truth since most of those involved are now deceased and the reports and documents created by the state maintain that the fire was not intentional,” Mitchell said. “We can always hope that some revealing document or report will lead us to a clearer understanding of the cause of the fire.”

While family members and historians are still searching for the truth of what happened the night of the Wrightsville fire, Mitchell is grateful to CNN for putting the spotlight on the event and hopes the publicity will encourage people with information to come forward.

“CNN did an excellent job of shedding light on a little-discussed chapter in Arkansas history,” he said. “I believe that by shedding light on the incident CNN has increased the chances that those who might know more about the incident or possess records might come forward.”

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