The wait continues.
The day after a Dec. 18 status hearing where the courts said more time is needed to review information from all sides regarding the remains of 95 people found in an unmarked historic cemetery on a Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) school construction site, the district filed a new “emergency” motion asking Judge James Shoemake to expedite the process.
The delays are costing the school district and eventually taxpayers more money than was planned to build the James Reese Career and Technical Center, a school district lawyer argued in court motions filed Wednesday in the 434th District Court. This district wants the remains reinterred at the nearby Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. Advocates for the “Sugar Land 95” prefer to have the remains reburied where they were found.
The district is building a $58 million state-of-the-art career and technology center that was approved by voters as part of the 2014 bond. The delays in building the center, originally slated to open in the fall of 2019, are hurting the students, the district argued.
“The high school students of FBISD who had hoped to begin enrollment and course selection for programs to be offered in the impacted wing of the CTE campus are in limbo, unsure of their prospects to pursue technical and dual credit courses next year in pursuit of their graduation and career path programs,” the six-page emergency motion stated.
The center will offer advanced courses providing career opportunities in agriculture and natural resources, architecture and construction, arts and audio video communications, culinary arts, cosmetology, education and training, information technology, law, and public safety, manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. Students will have access to dual credit courses and multiple opportunities to earn industry certifications while completing coursework at the center, the district said.
For those in the community concerned about the 95 skeletal remains of what are believed to be post-Civil War era convict laborers, time is the answer. Advocates want the courts to take the time to determine the identity of the bodies in hopes of finding living ancestors. They also want to shine a light on a dark, little-known piece of Sugar Land history. The “convicts” were black former slaves who were imprisoned on minor offenses and trumped-up charges and then leased to sugarcane plantations for hard labor. The state program ran from 1878 to 1910. The Sugar Land 95 are believed to have been leased convict laborers who died and were hastily buried at the site.
Local prison historian Reginald Moore, head of the Convict Labor and Leasing Project and the man who has been a watchdog on the matter, issued a prepared statement saying, “the rush to reinter the 95 bodies without the proper genealogical and historical studies is disrespectful to these individuals and the painful history they represent. This critical historic site represents the historical memory of the Brazos Valley’s use of captive labor for growing and harvesting sugarcane, the cash crop from which came the name of Sugar Land.”
Because of the many voices involved, Judge Shoemake named attorney Michael W. Elliott the special Master in Chancery – or court aid – to gather and winnow through the information. The emergency motion again took issue with Shoemake’s directive that the school district work with Elliott.
School lawyers wrote, the district “challenges the trial court’s improper appointment of a local attorney to act as master of chancery in a single party action seeking the removal of a cemetery designation. If the district is required to proceed in the trial court litigation managed by an improperly appointed master with a blanket scope of authority, as explained below, irreparable harm will result and will continue to compound with time,” wrote the school district’s attorney.
FBISD issued a statement following the Tuesday morning hearing stating, “while construction of the center continues in areas not affected by the archaeological discovery, cost increases associated with the delays and potential redesign are rising each month. The District has already incurred an estimated $5.5 million in construction delays and for archaeological observation, investigation, exhumation, and historical analysis. It is anticipated that further delays will cause the District to spend an additional $7.5 to $8.5 million to ensure that other parts of the center can open as scheduled.
“If the court does not allow the bodies to be reburied at the city-owned cemetery, the center would have to be redesigned to a different area of the property. The cost to construct the redesigned center would add an additional estimated $18 million in costs to the $58 million dollar bond project, which could push the project an estimated $25 million over budget.”
Added Board President Jason Burdine, “Our district has a responsibility to our students, taxpayers, and the citizens who voted in support of this project to avoid the continuing delay and economic harm being caused to the taxpayers.”
“The district and the City of Sugar Land reached an agreement to bury the remains in a city-owned cemetery in October. The only holdup now is that we need approval from the court. Further delay will leave the remains without a final resting place and will add millions of dollars of unbudgeted costs to the project. The district’s mission is to educate students. It is legally prohibited from operating a cemetery and we need the court to approve the plan to rebury the remains at the city cemetery without further delay,” Burdine wrote.
Elliott’s role is to gather all the information from multiple parties so the judge can make a ruling. He said that takes time. To that effect, the courts gave Elliott power of discovery or the right to ask the district for information that must be presented. So he asked the FBISD for any names or identities that they may have.
The district’s attorney, Michelle Morris, noted there are some names in historical records of who may have been incarcerated but that did not necessarily mean they were the same people buried in the cemetery.
“In other words, it is not possible to scientifically list suspected prisoners to any of the discovered remains. Since none of the deceased individuals have been identified, there is no way to ID or notify respective descendants as pointed out in court in FBISD’s petition seeking permission to reinter the remains,” Morris wrote.
“For this reason FBISD is willing and has sought permission from the THC (Texas Historical Commission) to obtain and curate genetic material from the remains in order to have such materials available for possible future invasive testing against the DNA of persons who may come forward in the future to request permission to establish such descendant status,” Morris wrote.
Elliott told the courts that the district was not forthcoming so he filed a 25-page motion showing the work he has done on the case so far and a request to compel the district to comply. To bolster his request for compliance, Elliott wrote that the district said they did not have the identities of any of the remains. He said he received “contradictory information” from the Fort Bend County Historical Commission that there was a “medically confirmed identity of at least one.’’
That charge of withholding information prompted the district to file the emergency motion to stop using Elliott. They also included an affidavit from Reign Clark, cultural resources director for Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., the professional archaeological firm hired by the district, who said Elliott’s claim about a medically confirmed identity “is not factually accurate.” Clark added that Elliott “did not contact me for verification of the statements attributed to the historical commission.”
Elliott did not respond to the Fort Bend Star’s request for comment on the district’s new motion.
Elliott’s request asked the court to make the district provide basically everything including any and all documents between FBISD and governmental bodies, historical commissions, and title companies. He also asked for all documents about the Imperial Sugar Prisoner Lease Program; the construction layout and alternative layouts and design plans.
That request prompted the district to ask the judge for relief.
“Regardless of whether or not this court expedites this proceeding, (and it should) the court should enter an order staying the trial court’s order appointing a master and ordering the master to refrain from taking any further action pursuant to his appointment while this mandamus proceeding is pending,” the emergency motion says. “Absent temporary relief, FBISD will be required to expend taxpayer resources complying with the master’s overreaching requests for information while this mandamus action is pending.’’
As the struggle becomes more complex and in anticipation of the judge’s status hearing, supporters gathered Sunday on the steps of Sugar Land Town Square with candles to keep the focus on the remains.
Sam Collins III, an original member of the Sugar Land Task Force that was disbanded and absorbed by the FBISD Task Force, attended the vigil and the status hearing.
“I was glad to see Judge Shoemake deny FBISD’s request to remove the Master in Chancery. FBISD has a legal right to pursue an outcome they desire, but FBISD continues to mislead the committee they formed to deal with this issue. FBISD says one thing to the committee, then continues to work behind the scenes for the one outcome FBISD wants to move the remains. Judge Shoemake has ordered FBISD to work with the Master in Chancery and they continue to fight against the judge’s order,” Collins said.
FBISD’s outgoing school board member and incoming Fort Bend County Judge KP George attended the vigil.
“It is important we recognize the history of Texas for what it is – complex. These African-American prisoners were treated more inhumanely than words can describe, some of them being women, young children, and seniors. We must acknowledge our history for what it is, so we do not repeat the past. I hope the school district and all other involved parties including the community can come to a consensus on treating these bodies with respect and regard as we move forward,” George said.