Sugar Land school district likely to build tech center over burial ground for black convict laborers
The city will relocate the remains to a nearby cemetery, against the wishes of historians and activists.
An exhibit depicting the history of convict leasing in Sugar Land quietly went on display in Fondren Library’s central walkway earlier this semester. Originally created for a Houston Action Research Team project several years ago, it was updated and re-installed in light of a recent discovery.
In February, the bodies of 95 African American victims of the convict leasing system, described by journalist Douglas Blackmon as ‘slavery by another name’, were unearthed on a Fort Bend Independent School District construction site, according to court records. The discovery generated both local and national attention, from coverage by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly, to features in the New York Times and Washington Post.
“The blood-drenched history that gave the city of Sugar Land, Tex., its name show[s] its face,” wrote Brent Staples in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
A Bloody Past
Examinations reveal muscles torn away from the bone from the strain of heavy labor
For half a century after the abolition of slavery, Southern state prisons rented out convicts to private companies as a replacement source of cheap labor. Under a series of laws known as the “Black Codes,” black men were targeted and incarcerated for petty charges such as vagrancy, then forced to labor under debilitating conditions considered far too dangerous for white workers. Often contracts between the prison and the company explicitly stipulated that the convicts be African American.
Sugar Land grew from the Imperial Sugar Company, once the biggest establishment using convict leasing in Texas. For the most part, the rapidly developing city has attempted to write out the forced black labor that formed its economic foundation from its history, Jay Jenkins, a lawyer for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said.
On Oct. 23, the city council voted 6-0 to approve the request of Fort Bend ISD, which owns the land, to move the bodies to the nearby Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery and continue construction for the James Reese Career and Technical Center over the burial site.
The decision went against the recommendation of the city-appointed Cemetery Task Force, composed of community members, professors and activists, which voted 19-1 to rebury the exhumed bodies where they were found out of respect for the original burial ground as a sacred space. The only dissenter was the school board representative.
The rush to move the remains elsewhere disrespects the memory, history and contributions of the individuals, Jenkins, a member of the task force, said.
Buried in unmarked pine boxes, the bodies reveal a life of suffering. Forensic examinations show muscles torn away from the bone from the strain of heavy labor; many of the inmates were likely worked to death, according to archaeologists who worked on the remains.
According to a 2004 study, Fort Bend County, where the bodies were found, was known by inmates as the “Hell Hole on the Brazos”. Brutal beatings, dangerous machinery and mosquito-spread epidemics on the swampy plantations all contributed to an annual 3 percent mortality rate in sugar cultivation.
Both the plantation owner’s initial treatment of the convicts and the city council’s decision reflect an implicit understanding of black bodies as disposable, Summar McGee, president of Rice’s Black Student Association, said.
“They’ve been laid to rest. Had that been a cemetery of other people, would they have moved the bodies?” McGee said. “The real uncomfortable truth is that they — and when I say ‘they’, I hear and I feel ‘I’—are not of value to people.”
City in Denial
“Our history as a city begins fifty years ago”
Robert Scamardo, a member of Fort Bend ISD’s general council, cited a lack of legal and financial means to operate a cemetery on a school property. A wing of the facility, currently under construction, is planned to be built directly atop the burial site, according to Scamardo.
Though relocation to the cemetery still requires approval from the Fort Bend County District Court, on a date to be determined, Scamardo is confident the decision will pass.
“I’m not aware of any compelling argument that the judge would be persuaded by,” Scamardo said.
Any living descendants would have a superior legal right to the remains of their relatives, according to Scamardo. However, the school board does not intend to wait until DNA testing is complete before reburial.
The board believes it would not be respectful to leave the remains in limbo, Scamardo said.
“We want to ensure that we are acting with dignity and respect, and that the stories of these individuals are told,” Scamardo said.
Fort Bend ISD has committed to an onsite, indoor plaque commemorating the individuals, according to Scamardo.
Jenkins said the city council’s decision reflects a pattern of deep denial of its history.
Reginald Moore, a historian and community activist, said he has engaged in a 20-year long struggle for recognition from the city of Sugar Land for its role in the re-enslavement and abuse of black men after the civil war, and the resulting damage inflicted on the local black community.
Moore, who founded the Texas Slave Descendants Society, said the city has denied his requests for reparations for descendants of convict lessees, as well as the formation of a museum in honor of the victims.
Because Sugar Land was not incorporated until 1959, after the convict leasing program ended, the city is not responsible for the grievances that occurred under the program, according to the official Sugar Land website.
“Our history as a city begins fifty years ago,” city manager Allen Bogard said in an interview for the Texas Monthly in 2017.
Yet students grow up surrounded by neighborhoods such as Plantation Bend, Magnolia Plantations and Plantation Homes. Residents drive down streets like Cunningham Creek Drive, Ellis Creek Drive, Terry Street and Voss Road, named for slave owners and/or Confederate veterans.
The Telfair neighborhood was built over large tracts of land that had been farmed by convicts. Despite the possibility of convict graves located on the land, no extensive archeological studies were performed before the city sold the land to the developer, according to the Woodson Research Center website.
The prosperity brought by development is rarely shared by the longstanding African American community, many of who are getting priced out of the real estate market, according to Lora Wildenthal, the faculty advisor for the 2015 HART project.
Muted Response at Rice
"For the average African American, this is not news. This is dinner table conversation.
Despite the national media attention and Fort Bend’s proximity, a 30 minute driving distance from campus, the ongoing controversy has generated little discussion among students on campus, Grant Lu, a junior at McMurtry, said.
“I don’t think a lot of people have realized how close [it] is — that this is Sugar Land where this is all happening,” Lu said.
The significance of this discovery goes beyond Sugar Land, as a lens into a largely obscured period of American history, Amanda Focke, assistant head of special exhibits at Woodson Research Center, said.
“It’s just not in the textbooks, not something that most people know about,” Focke said.
According to Lu, who grew up in Sugar Land, the lack of awareness reflects a failure of the education system, citing major gaps in his high school curriculum.
“In Texas history, our teacher tried to convince us that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights,” Lu said.
The average African American person does not have the privilege of this blissful ignorance, according to McGee.
“This is not news [for us],” McGee said. “We didn’t have to have a class. This is dinner table conversation. We understand systems like convict leasing, how those things are intrinsically tied to prison labor today.”
More than just a bygone era, convict leasing should serve as a reminder of the ways white supremacy has survived and evolved in American history, according to Caleb McDaniel, a historian of slavery and the 19th-century United States at Rice and a member of the cemetery task force.
“From the moment of emancipation, definitely during Jim Crow, and right through the civil rights movement up to today, people are over punished if they are living while black,” Lora Wildenthal, Dean of the Humanities at Rice, said.
Confronting the Truth
“There is not one aspect of American culture untouched by either contributions of black Americans and/or the suffering of black Americans”
Sugar Land should take steps, such as building a museum and placing markers, to make its history visible and understandable, Wildenthal said.
“People who bury their head in the sand, they don’t look too good later,” Wildenthal said. “There is a chance to forge a community that isn’t based on Mississippi plantation names and pretending the past didn’t happen.”
Jenkins said students have the ability to make an impact.
“The decision-makers are particularly afraid of young people,” Jenkins said. “If you’re making about a point about Sugar Land and the criminal justice system it makes them look bad.”
McGee said action has to come from more than just the minority of black students - a broad cultural shift is necessary at Rice.
“There is not one aspect of American culture untouched by either contributions of black Americans and/or the suffering of black Americans,” McGee said. “That’s a hard unequivocal truth: we don’t necessarily engage in with our studies at Rice. We skirt around it, we don’t get at what it is.”
Wildenthal said it’s not Rice’s place as a non-profit institution to directly engage in a municipal level struggle. However, she said she encourages individuals at Rice, particularly professors with expertise in the area, to take a stand publicly regarding Sugar Land’s actions moving forward, perhaps by writing an op-ed.
In addition, Rice can offer academic support towards bridging the knowledge gap between scholars and the general public, McDaniel said.
Since 2015, the Woodson Research Center has housed a permanent collection of archival material that Moore accumulated over the course of his advocacy work, according to the Woodson website.
Rice’s history department is currently in the planning stages for a scholarly symposium on convict leasing and labor to be held in the spring semester.
According to Wildenthal, Rice can also contribute by building student interest, partnering with community organizations, developing curriculum for the Texas Board of Education, and offering relevant courses. Besides McDaniel, the Rice historian, Wildenthal cited history professors James Sidbury, Fay Yarbrough, and Alex Byrd, who have research focuses that involve African American history.
Though Rice offers an African Studies minor, there is currently no African Studies, black studies, or diaspora major.
Despite the centrality of African American history to American history, students can choose to go through Rice without ever engaging with African American culture or history, in a way that you can’t with European classics or history, according to McGee.
“Don’t just put together the professors who teach mildly relevant courses,” McGee said. “Hire full time staff members to show that you are dedicated and acknowledge us as a legitimate field. The history would enrich us all and make people more aware of the dynamics of the culture and space that they occupy.”
McGee said she asks for both convict leasing in Sugar Land and African American history in general to be given the honor it deserves.
The Cemetery Task Force will continue holding meetings at the Sugar Land City Hall (2700 Town Center Blvd, Sugar Land) until further notice. The meetings are open to the public.