MHS play delves into 'The Secret Holocaust'

Bill Graham/The Meridian Star

Meridian High student Xzavier Henderson, MHS theater teacher Randy Ferino Wayne Jr. and student Josh Davis are part of a production called 'Death by Design' at the school next week. 

In the late 1950s, as Europe was recovering from the Holocaust, the U.S. was dealing with a tragedy of its own in Wrightsville, Arkansas.

In the early morning of March 5, 1959, a fire broke out in the Negro Industrial School for Boys.

With the doors locked from the front and the back, 69 black boys tried to escape the inferno. 

Climbing through a window, only 48 survived, while the remaining 21 died of smoke inhalation or were burned beyond recognition. 

When it came time for the victims' parents to pick up the bodies, it was difficult because their remains were scattered.

The cause of the fire remains a mystery.

The young boys who died that night were called the Wrightsville 21, and many Americans don’t know their story.

An upcoming production at Meridian High School aims to correct that. 

"Death by Design: The Secret Holocaust of Wrightsville, Arkansas," is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Dec. 4 and 5 in the MHS auditorium. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students with a school ID.

“I want people to understand black history and not just sweep it under the rug," said Randy Ferino Wayne Jr., the school's theater teacher and director of the play. "It's American history." 

Over the past two years, the school has produced similar plays, such as the stories of Emmett Till and George Stinney Jr. Till was a 14-year old black boy, who was killed on August 28, 1954, in Money, Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Till’s death sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

Stinney Jr., 14, was the youngest person to be executed in 1944 after he was accused of murdering two white girls in South Carolina. He maintained his innocence, and 70 years later was exonerated.

In developing the new production, Wayne wanted to touch on the themes of the other plays, while addressing current events, such as the deaths of Travyon Martin and Sandra Bland.  

The school in Wrightsville was established with the purpose of teaching young black boys an industrial trade.

The boys were sent to the school for a better life, but once they arrived, it was a different story, according to Wayne. 

In his research, Wayne found that the boys lived in horrible conditions,  working in the fields picking cotton, instead of learning a trade.

MHS student Josh Davis plays the role of Lindsey Cross, one of the 21 boys who died in the fire. 

Davis, 17, said the character's story is relatable to him because of the country's racial divide. While Till and Stinney Jr., experienced direct racism, the racism at Wrightsville was more indirect, Davis said. 

Cross, for example, was sent to a school for minor crime.  

“They were given poor conditions because they were black,” Davis said. 

Before learning about the Wrightsville incident, Davis had only heard of the Elaine Massacre, a 1919 conflict between blacks and whites in Arkansas.

“More people need to be exposed to what has happened in history and what we can learn from it," Davis said. "Especially if it's not told to us in our schools.” 

Xzavier Henderson said the main reason he wanted to be in the play was to learn more about black history.

“I want to be part of teaching other kids around me about what I have learned,” the 15-year-old said.

Learning about the past is one way to make sure tragedies such as Wrightsville don't happen again, he said.

Looking ahead, Wayne plans to take the cast to the Wrightsville site where they will perform and get a chance to experience living history.

The site is not far from Pine Bluff, where the 48 students who survived found shelter, he said. 

Wayne also hopes the play will get more MHS students interested in the arts so they can tell untold stories of black history.  

“I feel like more black creators like Mr. Ferino can come together to inspire the next generation," Davis said. "That will inspire people that they can do this too.” 

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