Last Wednesday the Fort Bend County Historical Commission voted unanimously to oppose the Fort Bend Independent School District’s request to remove the cemetery designation for the 95 graves discovered at a school construction site that have become known as the Sugar Land 95.
I was one of the commissioners who voted. I’m newly appointed to the commission and the special meeting on Wednesday was my first as a member of the board. My vote was also in stark contrast to a column I wrote last December in support of the school district’s desire to move the remains to a prison cemetery a half-mile away.
So what changed my mind? Perspective. Reason trumped logic. At the meeting and as a member of the commission I had a lot more information at my disposal than when I wrote my column with little more than my ivory tower perspective.
The logical and easy thing to do is to move the graves to the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery and allow the Fort Bend ISD to continue construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. It would save millions of dollars and a lot of time. It would give the Sugar Land 95 the dignity of a uniform and well-maintained historical cemetery as their final, final resting place.
I’ve also been thinking about perspective. If you have a crime victim whose body is buried in an unmarked grave and it is discovered several years later, would you leave them in that burial spot or would you exhume the remains and re-bury them in a cemetery? That is essentially what we have here.
Moving the Sugar Land 95 to the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery is the logical thing to do and it’s also the wrong thing to do.
First, a little background. The Sugar Land 95 are victims of the state-sanctioned convict labor leasing program that ran from 1878 to 1910. The program was essentially a new form of slavery. Black people were imprisoned for minor offenses or on trumped-up charges. The prisons would then lease them out as laborers, in this case to work the sugarcane fields for Imperial Sugar. Those who died while in custody were buried in unmarked graves in an unregistered cemetery. The cemetery was discovered a year ago as construction was starting on the career and technical center.
To the Fort Bend ISD’s credit, it did everything it was supposed to up to the point of discovery of the cemetery. It commissioned a cultural resources investigation and went through the Texas Historical Commission’s process prior to purchasing the property. It also did a detailed title search. No evidence of a cemetery ever appeared. As the district was making plans to start construction, Reginald Moore, a local resident and historian with an interest in the prison system, warned the district there was a distinct possibility there may be graves in the area.
The district hired archaeologists from Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., to conduct research. They found nothing, but just before they submitted a final report to the state, crews installing utilities discovered human bones. Construction was temporarily halted and Goshawk was called back out. This time the investigation uncovered 95 graves on the site right next to where the building was going up.
The district had Goshawk exhume the 95 bodies. In hindsight, that probably never should have happened, but it did. They now sit in an environmentally controlled trailer on the site awaiting disposition. The district, which has a responsibility to the voters who approved the bonds for construction of the school, is moving ahead with as much of the construction as it can do with one wing of the building in limbo until the issue with the cemetery is resolved.
The district held community meetings along with the City of Sugar Land to try and figure out how best to handle the situation. FBISD and the city entered into an agreement to allow the bodies to be reinterred at the city-owned Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery a half-mile away.
Moving forward, the school district went to district court to ask that the cemetery designation on the site be removed and that the remains be re-buried at the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. District Court Judge James Shoemake was wise enough to see that there was no one representing the cemetery or voices in opposition to the school district appearing in his court. Shoemake postponed making a ruling and named attorney Michael W. Elliott as master in chancery, a special investigative advocate, to research the issue for the court. The district appealed that decision and the matter is pending in appellate court.
In the meantime, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court has asked the historical commission to advise it on how best to proceed regarding the cemetery issue. From what I understand, the commission is one of the few entities with a legal right to intervene in the case. That’s exactly what we asked the commissioners court to let us do.
Although there is plenty of legal precedent for moving graves and relocating whole cemeteries, I now feel that moving this one would be a big mistake. This is a find of tremendous historical significance. The convict leasing program is a very ugly and deplorable chapter in our history. Very little has been made known about it. For the most part it has been swept under the rug of time, much like the Sugar Land 95.
Although we don’t know enough to determine who each of the Sugar Land 95 are or how they came to be in the convict leasing program, we do know from forensic evidence that they lived horrific lives of hard labor. They presumably died while in custody of the state and were buried in unmarked graves in an unregistered cemetery. I would imagine all that their relatives were told is that they died in prison. If anyone came looking for them, the bodies were nowhere to be found.
We found them.
Now that we know they are there, we have just this one chance to do the right thing for them. Each one should be returned to his or her eternal resting place. (Yes, there was one and possibly more women buried in the cemetery.) A discovery like this is rare and should be preserved for the sake of history and the dignity of the individuals. These are people who were wronged their entire lives. It would be a travesty for us to do them wrong in death.
I realize that keeping the cemetery designation creates an enormous hardship for the school district and the taxpayers therein. As the district is fond of pointing out, it is charged with educating students. What better opportunity could there be than to teach this and future generations the value of doing the right thing no matter the cost?
About 27 percent of the district is black. Are we to tell them their ancestry and heritage are not important enough to preserve and memorialize? I don’t think so. If the remains had been those of Republic of Texas soldiers or other people of historic significance, there would be no question about leaving them there. So why should this be any different?
Although this is my own personal column and I do not speak on behalf of the Fort Bend County Historical Commission, I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a member who would disagree with me on this subject. It took a willing ear and an open mind for me to change my position on this. I can only hope the school district will do the same or at least be open to reasonable compromises.