By Joe Southern
and Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
The Sugar Land 95 may now have a voice.
The Fort Bend County Historical Commission voted 43-0 to request the commissioner’s court authorize it to intervene in the lawsuit filed by the Fort Bend Independent School District and oppose removal of the cemetery designation where 95 graves were found at the construction site of the James Reece Career and Technical Center.
The action was taken during a special meeting Feb. 6 after the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court asked the historical commission to advise it on how it should respond to a lawsuit filed by the school district seeking removal of the cemetery designation and allow relocation of the bodies found there.
The historic commission held a meeting where members of the public were invited to comment. Once the comments were complete, the commission went into a closed session. When it came out, it unanimously approved a resolution to, “Recommend opposition to the removal of the cemetery designation and request authorization from the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court for the County Historical Commission to intervene in the lawsuit filed by FBISD for that purpose.”
“At this point, there is no immediate implication for the (school) district because the motion is to recommend opposition to the removal of the cemetery dedication and request authorization for the commission to intervene in the lawsuit,” Fort Bend ISD spokesperson Veronica Sopher said after the meeting.
She said it was about time the historical commission became involved in the case.
“At this point, it quite honestly signals the district that the historical commission is ready to step up and engage and be a part of the solution that is going to ultimately memorialize and honor the 95 souls that were buried on the site,” she said.
Sopher said she invited the historical commission out numerous times to tour the site.
“I presented to them personally, updated them on the findings. We have repeatedly gone to them with updates and this is the first time they have taken the time to engage and for that we are thankful,” she said.
Nine people spoke during the public comment period, six of them in opposition to removing the cemetery designation.
“I’ve come to deliver the signatures of 225 professional historians from Texas and around the nation testifying to the historical nature of this site. This includes scholars from your big East Coast schools, along with the University of Texas at Austin, the past presidents of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Texas State Historical Association,” said Liz Peterson.
“The thing is, the narrative of Fort Bend County history would not be complete without the inclusion of the convict leasing system – a system we all deeply regret but that did happen. And it played a pivotal role in the development of our region. Today, U.S. historians and preservationists have a unique opportunity to protect this cemetery the offers an irreplaceable opportunity to memorialize this unfortunate chapter of Texas history,” Peterson said.
David McNally, a Cullen Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Houston, said the commission has a rare opportunity to help right a wrong.
“You have a historic opportunity today and in the coming weeks to not only redress a historical injustice but to provide moral leadership,” he said. “Moral leadership means acknowledging truth. It means coming to terms with the blights in our history and beginning to do the hard work as communities to rectify the historic injustices. You can rise to this occasion, but it means recognizing both the historical significance of this site, of this cemetery, in terms of the whole story of American history and Texas history and it means recognizing your ethical responsibilities of telling the truth and to addressing the issues.”
He strongly urged for preservation of the site.
“You cannot build over and pave over this historical reality. It needs to be named, it needs to be acknowledged, it needs to be honored. It would be to perpetuate a cycle of denial and a cycle of injustice not to leave those remains, acknowledge the cemetery and create a proper memorial to those men,” he said.
“When you talk about the future and you talk about covering up this site with a building you ignore the importance of this discovery. This discovery is of national significance,” said Samuel Collins, who is on the board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, served on the state board of review for the Texas Historical Commission, and currently a commissioner with the Galveston County Historical Commission.
“It’s not that the people or the history was dirty, but the cover-up was dirty,” he said. “It’s time to the help the future to do better. So we for months have been asking Fort Bend ISD not to build over this sacred ground. But they continue to progress and they will argue today that it’s too expensive to preserve this history and they’re not in the business of cemeteries. It’s insulting for them to tell us that. We know the school is not in the business of operating a cemetery but there’s something that can be done, a modification, because of the significance of this site.”
Reginald Moore, founder of the Convict Labor Leasing Project organization and who has been documenting the history of prisons in Fort Bend County, was the first to advised the school district it may be building on an unmarked cemetery. He noted at the meeting that the case has garnered national and worldwide attention.
“If the county doesn’t do the right thing, the United States is watching us. It’s going to be a black eye on Sugar Land, Fort Bend County, the state,” he said.
Michelle Morris spoke about the process the school district went through before purchasing the land and starting construction. That process included detailed archeological research and title searches. She said rumors that the district knew or should have known there were graves on the site are false.
“Did anybody know there were graves on this particular 60 acres that the state of Texas never registered in the public records and abandoned and didn’t mark in any permanent way? No. Any suggestion that the school district knew that or had reason to believe that is not only unfair, it’s unfounded, and it’s untrue,” she said.
Lead archeologist Reign Clark, Cultural Resources Director for Goshawk Environmental Consulting, spoke about the discovery of the cemetery.
“On Feb. 20 we called in law enforcement and they collected the bone material. A couple days later we did have verification that we did have human remains on site,” he said. “At that same time we had found prehistoric ceramics, the first that we had seen on the project area after being out there for three months. And they were in close association with the human remains, so at first what we thought we had was a prehistoric burial site. Often those burial sites are possibly one, two, three individuals, not a large group.
“We commenced work doing block excavation as we would if we were investigating a prehistoric site. What we found was burial number one – an individual who had been buried in a casket with square nails. That dated the internment and the person was laid out in a supine position in an east-west orientation. At that point we realized we needed to search for more graves and use a follow-up methodology that was more appropriate for a historic cemetery,” he said.
Sopher, the spokesperson for the school district, read a letter from Jason Burdine, president of the board of trustees.
“We appreciate the concern of the coalition of community members and elected officials who have reached out to Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees and we agree wholeheartedly that the victims of the state of Texas’s convict leasing system suffered systemic and oppressive injustices. We welcome any partnership and financial support our elected officials can assist the district with as our local taxpayers have already spent $5 million since the discovery and to change course we need to identify an additional $18 million. We look forward to exploring all options on how to make that happen. We both want to show respect for the 95 lives that were lost to this horrific state-sanctioned practice and the same time relieve the burden to our taxpayers,” she read.
“I’m confident that we as a community can come together to find a solution and we’re going to rely not only on the county but the cities, the state, and any other governmental entity that can provide the resources to help us meet both of those goals. So we look forward to our continued dialog,” Sopher said.
The unmarked cemetery was discovered a year ago when the school district began construction of the career and technical center (CTC). Throughout the summer archeologists exhumed and examined the skeletal remains of the 95 people buried there. They determined them to be victims of the state-sanctioned convict labor leasing program that operated from 1878-1910. All of them are believed to be black and one or more is female.
After holding a series of public meetings, the school district and the City of Sugar Land reached an agreement to reinter the remains nearby at the city-owned Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. That decision did not sit well with a coalition of activists who feel the bodies – which are currently being stored in a trailer on site – should be returned to their original gravesites.
The Fort Bend ISD has continued with construction of the portions of the CTC that are not impacted by the cemetery. It also filed suit in the 434th District Court seeking removal of the cemetery designation and to allow it to move the bodies to the Imperial cemetery and complete construction of the CTC.
Judge James Shoemake of the 434th District Court delayed ruling on the case until March and named attorney Michael W. Elliott as master in chancery, a special investigative advocate, to research the issue for the court. The district appealed that action and the matter is pending in appellate court.
A letter was recently submitted to the FBISD Board of Trustees by 15 people asking the board stop construction and return the bodies to their original graves. The letter was signed by a number of elected officials including U.S. Rep. Al Green, State Sen. Borris Miles, State Rep. Ron Reynolds, County Judge KP George, County Commissioner Ken DeMerchant, District Attorney Brian Middleton, and Missouri City Councilman Jeffrey Boney.
“We have the chance to demonstrate to the nation that Fort Bend ISD, the City of Sugar Land, and Fort Bend County are jointly committed to leading the way in being on the right side of history; most importantly, we have the ability to show future generations that we are committed to doing the right thing, even when it may be the more difficult path to take. We urge Fort Bend ISD to find alternative measures to show respect for the ninety-five lives that were lost and laid to rest on this land. We will be in attendance at your meeting on February 18th, where we look forward to discussing alternative plans,” they wrote.
(Disclaimer: Writer Joe Southern is a member of the Fort Bend County Historic Commission and voted in favor of the resolution.)