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Stirring the ashes 

A victim’s relative sparks another look at a state tragedy.

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Fourteen bodies lie side by side and unmarked in a mass grave at Haven of Rest Cemetery on Twelfth Street. The only proof of their burial is a page from the graveyard's 1959 records.

The 14 were teen-agers when they burned to death in a fire March 5, 1959, at the Negro Boys Industrial School at Wrightsville. In all, 21 boys between the ages of 13 and 16 perished, incinerated in a dorm room whose doors were padlocked on the outside.

The teens had been incarcerated (“Industrial School” was euphemistic) for homelessness, petty theft and pranks — one boy had been caught soaping windows during Halloween. Many were products of broken homes and turned over by their parents. Forty-eight of the boys who were in the “Big Boys Dorm” managed to escape what press reports called the “holocaust.”

Seven boys had private funerals. The remaining 14 — burned so badly their bodies could not be identified individually — were buried five days after the fire, their interment paid for by the state of Arkansas. During the funeral, the Arkansas Gazette reported, a mother cried out, “Oh Lord! You done burned up my baby!”

In her anguish, she may have blamed the Lord. But 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.”

Forty-nine years later, the event is little remembered. But Luvenia Lawrence, 81, whose son, Lindsey Cross, died in the fire, and Lindsey's brother Frank Lawrence, who was 4 years old when his brother perished, remember. They found the record of the graves at Haven of Rest. At their request, the graves, hard by a ditch, are now marked with yellow flagging tape.

Frank Lawrence, who plans to make a documentary film about the event, has taken the story to print and television media in Little Rock. Two TV stations have aired interviews with Lawrence in recent weeks, and he's working with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to record the story there.

At one time, Luvenia Lawrence says, a stone at Rest Haven marked the graves. A stone would be a start in reminding the people of Arkansas of the terrible event, she and her son say.

Lindsey Cross was 15 when he was trapped by the fire. He'd been sent to Wrightsville after a neighbor of the Lawrences — in the Tie Plant area of North Little Rock — told authorities he'd stolen money from a store's cash register while two other boys distracted the white owner.

Luvenia Lawrence said she could only remember going to “an office” before her son was sent to Wrightsville. It seemed strange to her that there had been no trial.

But there wouldn't have been. It took a lawsuit, filed by Grif Stockley for Legal Aid in the late 1980s, to create legal redress for juveniles in Arkansas. Until then, county judges had jurisdiction, appointing referees (usually not lawyers) to decide the fate of juveniles. Pulaski County's referee — Judith Rogers, who later became a juvenile judge — testified for Stockley. In 1987, the state Supreme Court ruled the system unconstitutional and ordered juvenile cases heard in chancery courts (now circuit courts).

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