Ever since human remains were discovered last year at the site of Fort Bend ISD’s Jordan Reese Career and Technical Center, which is under construction, there has been debate and discussion about what to do with them.
Through the fire of controversy, progress has been forged.
FBISD and Fort Bend County elected officials joined community members Monday morning to announce progress on a solution for the future interment of the 95 African Americans – known locally as the “Sugar Land 95” – which was made possible by the recent passage of House Bill 4179 in the Texas Legislature. The law allows Fort Bend County to own and operate the abandoned cemetery discovered at the site, which the county plans to lease from the school district.
“This is evidence of a strong and collaborative community that we’re working with here in Fort Bend ISD and Fort Bend County,” FBISD superintendent Charles Dupre said. “It took everyone here to bring this all to life. We are one step closer to finding the appropriate memorialization and resting place for the individuals that were discovered here. We look forward to the day we can truly celebrate and honor them.”
In February 2018, construction crews working on FBISD’s career and technical center discovered the remains of 95 individuals, who are believed to have been part of Texas’s convict-leasing program that was in operation until 1911.
In June 2018, the 434th District Court granted FBISD the authority to exhume the graves for investigation and analysis, which took 36-48 hours per grave. That was followed by 4-8 hours of cleaning and an additional 12 hours of analysis.
“From the beginning, Fort Bend ISD realized that this discovery is of great historical significance and remained committed to preserving and honoring these 95 individuals,” FBISD board president Jason Burdine said. “This represents a unique opportunity to educate our students and community about an important piece of our local history.”
Over the last few months, FBISD has partnered with the county, City of Sugar Land and those at the state capitol in Austin to determine how to best memorialize the individuals.
“I cannot express enough how I’ve appreciated the support of the board every step of the way,” Dupre said. “This has been a very complex, time-consuming and intensive process. But the board stood firm on always to do what is right to properly acknowledge these people.”
Fort Bend County-based District 26 Representative Rick Miller authored HB 4179, which made it possible for counties with a population larger than 8,200 to own cemeteries. Before the bill was signed into law June 7 by Gov. Greg Abbott, Fort Bend County did not have the legal authority to own one.
“This is my district, and it’s all about doing the right thing for these individuals who need to be commemorated in the right way,” he said. “That’s what it is for me, and that’s what is shown by what we’re doing.”
District 27 Representative Ron Reynolds – whose district encompasses Missouri City, Meadows Place and Stafford – along with John Zerwas and Phil Stevenson, co-authored the bill.
“Many of the liberties we enjoy in Fort Bend County today were built on the backs of those individuals,” Reynolds said.
Though it has been barely over a year since the remains were discovered, officials acknowledged the process had felt like an eternity. And there remains work yet to be done.
But Monday’s proceedings were the culmination of what officials said has been a collaborative effort to find the best possible solution.
“It is a community and bipartisan effort of everyone who’s living in this community,” Fort Bend County Judge KP George said. “This is a historic moment.”