The saga of the “Sugar Land 95,” the collection of African-American remains discovered last year at the site of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center, continues to be full of contention.
At last week’s school board meeting, community members spoke out against the district’s plans to reinter the remains of the 95 individuals, who are believed to have been part of Texas’s convict-leasing program that was in operation until 1911, without the involvement of Fort Bend County and the judicial system. FBISD has been in negotiations to convey the land where the remains were found to the county, which was given the authority to operate a cemetery earlier this year by state lawmakers.
One man at last week’s meeting was escorted out by security after screaming for FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre to resign.
“For a district to be comfortable making end-all, be-all decisions regarding these victims without the community and against the wishes of the court is disgusting to me, and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Swatara Collins said.
During the Sept. 23 regular meeting, the FBISD board of trustees voted unanimously for a memorial service that would complete the reinternment of the “Sugar Land 95.” The proposal outlines plans for an early November memorial service that would return the bodies to burial if an agreement cannot be reached with Fort Bend County.
FBISD announced in July that it had reached an agreement to convey the land to the county, and would pay the county $1 million to help cover costs associated with reinterring the remains. But since pulling that monetary offer off the table, negotiations with the county have stalled.
“All the decisions we made were in the spirit of doing what was right and proceeding with as much dignity and care that we possibly could in preserving the bodies that were found,” board member Kristin Tassin said.
Prior to the vote, several community members implored the district to reconsider its position and re-enter its initial deal with the county. Along with the $1 million and the land where the abandoned grave site was found, that agreement also called for FBISD to provide the county an additional 10 acres for a memorial park.
“Just because you have a legal right and been advised by your council to do it, doesn’t mean it is right. The world is watching FBISD,” said Samuel Collins, who previously served on the city of Sugar Land’s cemetery task force and is on the board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Just because it’s cheaper for you to do it, it’s not always right. I would hope that the board members would have the courage to pause for a moment and honor the agreement you made with the county and allow them to do the reinternment.”
Others feel as though there has not been enough community involvement.
“I think before anyone is reburied or reinterred anywhere, there needs to be more work done with the community on this. I think we owe them this,” Gloria Rubach said.
Board members disputed such a notion, saying community input is the impetus for their plan.
“We heard loud and clear there was a desire to reinter the bodies where they were found, so we changed course to our current plan,” Dupre said.
Tassin echoed Dupre.
“Every committee this district put together, all voices were heard. It doesn’t mean we are going to agree with every voice, but all voices have been heard and been given an opportunity to speak and have input,” she said. “We have tried making decisions taking those voices into consideration. We have taken every step – legally, ethically and otherwise – to make sure we are allowing for descendants to potentially be found later. It could take years, which is why we’re moving to reinter the bodies now, because it’s the exact plan the county had. We’ve done everything we can to be transparent and tell the truth every step of the way.”
Swatara Collins disagreed.
“What we saw was fake concern, fake transparency and fake honor,” she said.
Dupre has previously said the district’s intention is to get the bodies to a resting place as soon as possible, thus its desire to avoid returning the matter to court. But some board members expressed reservations on that front.
“It’s not about being quick,” Addie Heyliger said. “I’m really concerned, because there are other conversations out there not being presented legally with the county, so I’m not sure why we have so many thought processes on what’s really happening when all the data is out there. I’ll say, I’m struggling.”
Despite unease among some board members, the motion passed.
“All it showed was how FBISD ignored the numerous warning signs and red flags brought before them before building that school they rushed to build,” Swatara Collins said.