From a young age, I’ve been taught to be compassionate to others. Whether it’s been from scriptural teachings or lessons derived from my parents’ constant reminders, I believe in doing everything in my power to help those in need.
That’s especially true when it comes to helping those who are powerless to help themselves. Frankly, I don’t care what led to someone being in need. If I have the means to help them, I will.
Though that seems to be an uncommon sentiment these days, I saw something earlier this week that should restore our faith in that ideal.
On today’s front page, you’ll see a story about officials celebrating the June 7 passage of House Bill 4179, which allows Fort Bend County to own and operate the abandoned cemetery discovered last year at Fort Bend ISD’s under-construction career and technical center. The site included the remains of 95 African Americans – known as the “Sugar Land 95” – who are believed to have been state prisoners contracted to perform cheap labor.
As I took a crash course on the history of the site and the path to reach this point, several things stood out.
The amount of news coverage the issue has received, both locally and nationally, suggests community members truly care about those who no longer have an active voice. And they have heeded a call to help those who can no longer help themselves.
By that same token, county and school district officials appear to have fought through some early snags and controversy to come together for a greater purpose, which is ultimately why they serve in such positions. No agendas, just progress. State representatives, congressmen and other officials threw aside party lines for a greater good, which is not often seen in today’s political climate.
“This shows how trust can put aside the lines that divide us, and how we can see issues as being above party affiliations,” said U.S. Rep. Al Green, whose District 9 encompasses parts of Sugar Land, Missouri City and Stafford. “This is not a partisan issue, this is a human rights issue. And in those situations, we should set aside the lines and come together for these people.”
Now, that’s not to say the disagreements haven’t come. As with any potential uprooting or change, debate and controversy are part of a discussion’s fabric.
It’s healthy as long as it’s done in good faith.
In June 2018, four months after the discovery of the site, the 434th District Court granted FBISD the authority to exhume the graves for investigation and analysis. Later that year, FBISD and City of Sugar Land agreed to inter the remains at the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery.
In a 2018 lawsuit, the district attempted to have the cemetery designation removed from the original site so the remains could be relocated. By all accounts, however, it wasn’t meant as the district wanting to simply dump the remains somewhere and move on.
“As a school district, we do not have the means or expertise to – and by law could not – operate a cemetery, but we remained committed to memorializing these individuals,” FBISD superintendent Charles Dupre said Monday.
So even in dispute, a desire to properly and respectfully honor the individuals found at the site remained at the forefront. Between working in Katy and Houston, I have seen too many school boards obsessed with being right or laying down their own version of the law. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here, and progress since then drives home that belief.
Fort Bend County’s commissioner’s court unanimously passed a resolution in late 2018 to ask the Texas Legislature to change the Texas Health and Safety Code to allow the county to own and maintain the burial site.
With a similar vote by FBISD on Feb. 18 of this year, County Judge KP George and the county attorney were authorized to negotiate with the district to turn the portion of the original site containing the cemetery into a memorial park and cemetery after FBISD dropped the lawsuit.
Following several community meetings in late 2018 and early 2019, FBISD and the City of Sugar Land reached an agreement that would allow the remains to be reinterred at the Imperial Prison Farm cemetery.
However, in a display of care and compassion, several community activists protested that decision, saying the bodies should not be disturbed from the site. Again, it was not so much an indictment on the opposition as simply wanting to care for and give a voice to those without one.
“When I came into office, what it’s been all about has been human dignity. It’s all about looking at a group of people who were not delivered justice,” George told community members as to why he got involved. “As a civilized society, it’s our job and duty to deliver justice for them. That’s the reason we’re all a part of this discussion.”
So when Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 4179 into law June 7, it signaled that compassion had prevailed. Monday’s celebration of the resolution gave credence to previous assertions that a solution was always the goal – and not just being right.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. But your elected officials have done the legwork here.
The actions of Abbott and county officials have moved the Sugar Land 95’s fate closer to a peaceful rest.
It’s now up to the county, FBISD and Sugar Land to drive the resolution home.