Despite stalled talks with Fort Bend County over how to navigate oversight of the reinternment of 95 sets of remains discovered at the James Reese Career and Technical Center construction site last year, Fort Bend ISD is moving ahead with a plan to give the “Sugar Land 95” a final resting place.
“There have been multiple meetings in the last few weeks, and there is one this week,” FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said. “We’re trying to negotiate with (the county) in good faith, and in a way that respects where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Meanwhile, the district is in the process of presenting a finalized contract to the board of trustees to move ahead with a memorial service that would complete the reinternment of the “Sugar Land 95,” who are African Americans believed to have been part of Texas’ convict-leasing program that was in operation until 1911. Their remains were discovered last year, when FBISD began construction of its new career and technical building.
The district’s proposal, which would be voted on during the Sept. 23 board meeting, outlines plans for an early November memorial service that would return the bodies to rest even if an agreement cannot be reached with Fort Bend County, according to Dupre. A state law passed this year gave the county the authority 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. However, County Judge KP George said last month that an agreement had not been reached, because the district pulled out from its $1 million commitment and had not been negotiating in good faith.
“The Sugar Land 95 toiled under unthinkable working conditions that cost them their lives, and it is imperative that what we do now is done correctly,” George said in a statement.
Discussions between the county and FBISD have been ongoing throughout the summer and into the school year. During negotiations, Dupre said the county suggested reinterring the bodies – so that’s what the district is doing.
“In the end, the question the county is going to need to ask and answer is whether they’re willing to accept the cemetery into their possession so that they can maintain it into perpetuity,” Dupre said. “That’s the heart of the issue.”
Dupre said he is still hopeful a partnership can be struck between the school district and county, a concept that has had both community and legislative support. In June, school district leaders joined with elected officials from the county, the state legislature and U.S. Rep. Al Green to celebrate the passage of House Bill 4179, which amended a state statute to allow Fort Bend County to own and operate a cemetery.
“There’s multiple pieces to this. Whether or not they take the cemetery, we still at least want to partner with them for the memorial park by giving them the land for all that they need,” Dupre said. “It’s my hope that we can all work together and they will take possession of the cemetery. A lot of people in our community – and at the Capitol – worked hard to make it possible for them to do that.”
The county wants the reinternment process to have more oversight from the court system. George said the best way to honor the “Sugar Land 95” is to take the necessary time and precaution the legal system requires.
“To do so properly, we must seek the judiciary’s impartial and transparent opinion to guide our actions,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for our courts, and we must allow them to provide oversight during this process. There is no room for error when it comes to the right side of history.”
Dupre said time is of the essence and that FBISD has no desire to take the issue back to court. So he said the district could seek a nonprofit partner to own, operate and maintain the cemetery.
“We’ve dismissed the lawsuit, and we’re moving forward with reinterring the bodies. The remains have already been above ground too long – we need to get them back as soon as possible,” Dupre said. “… In the end, whatever we spend on a memorial service would be dollars well spent, because of the life and memories of these individuals we’re honoring.”