The 95 African Americans whose remains were unearthed during construction of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center last year will have to wait at least a bit longer to return to rest.
Talks of a potentially historic plan to return the remains to their original resting place have hit a snag as Fort Bend ISD and Fort Bend County butt heads over legal issues. The “Sugar Land 95” are believed to have been part of Texas’s convict-leasing program that was in operation until 1911.
FBISD announced in July that it had reached an agreement with the county to reinter the remains and transfer land ownership to the county so it could operate the cemetery. But County Judge KP George said this week that an agreement has not been reached.
“We brought together a historic group of stakeholders, passed a bill with the governor’s approval, and were incredibly close to finalizing a deal with the school district,” George said in a statement. “…The eyes of the nation are watching, and there is simply too much at stake.”
In June, school district leaders joined with elected officials from the county, the state legislature and U.S. Rep. Al Green to reiterate a shared desire to appropriately honor the “Sugar Land 95” and celebrate the passage of House Bill 4179, which amended a state statute to allow Fort Bend County to own and operate a cemetery. FBISD said in July that it had reached an interlocal agreement with the county to transfer the land and would provide an additional 10 acres for a memorial park and pay the county $1 million to help cover costs associated with reinterring the remains.
Discussions between the county and FBISD have been ongoing throughout the summer. According to a statement from FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, it has been during those negotiations that the county suggested FBISD reinter the remains prior to transferring ownership of the cemetery to the county – which changed the game.
“Since Fort Bend ISD is now moving forward to reinter the remains prior to conveyance of the cemetery to the county, there is no longer a reason to give the county money,” Dupre said in a statement. “However, some outstanding legal issues have precluded a final agreement being reached.”
George said in his statement that FBISD sent out news releases about the agreement without input from himself or the county, causing confusion, and also said the school district seems to have not been negotiating in good faith.
“Other governmental entities had warned us about this, which is why they stayed out of the negotiations,” George said in the statement. “Our only goal should be to deliver justice and respect human dignity of these people who were brutally mistreated during their lives. It breaks my heart to see that we were so close to finalizing the deal, and at the last minute, FBISD decides to go a different route.”
According to Dupre, FBISD still hopes to convey the cemetery and 10 acres of land, at no cost to county taxpayers, for cemetery operations and future memorialization.
“We look forward to continuing our conversations with the county soon, so that the county may publicly share plans they have developed for this important memorial park and education center,” Dupre said. “We remain committed to partnering with the county to educate students, our community and future generations about convict leasing and the Sugar Land 95. It is time to lay them to rest.”
Those at the county level, however, may not be so sure that a compromise can be reached.
“The only reason I got the county involved is to serve justice and to ensure human dignity for the Sugar Land 95,” George said. “These people were our citizens. This is an issue the school district has been dealing with for a couple of years in the national media, and the county joined to give them a lifeline to solve it in the best way possible.“
Community activists have claimed FBISD has built over part of the area where the remains of the 95 individuals were discovered in early 2018, according to the Houston Chronicle.
FBISD denied doing so.
“Fort Bend ISD has not built over any portion of the historic cemetery – and has no intention of doing so,” the district said in a statement. “(We) eliminated a planned wing of the James Reese Career and Technical Center that would have encroached upon the cemetery area to preserve the historic cemetery.”