Fort Bend County’s plan to take over the historic cemetery of the Sugar Land 95 at the construction site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center has hit a snag.
It turns out that the state doesn’t allow counties as large as Fort Bend to own, operate, and maintain a cemetery. To get around that problem the commissioners court unanimously passed a resolution to ask the state Legislature to change the Texas Health and Safety Code to allow the county to own and maintain the burial site of 95 victims of the state’s convict leasing program.
The 95 bodies were found a year ago at the construction site of the Fort Bend ISD’s new facility. They were exhumed and examined last summer, but their reinternment was held up by legal action as the school district wanted to remove them to a nearby prison cemetery so construction could be completed on the career and technical center, but community activists wanted them to remain in the cemetery.
An agreement was reached in February that would allow Fort Bend County to negotiate with the school district to take over and maintain the cemetery site, but those negotiations were interrupted last week when it was discovered that the Texas Health and Safety Code limits the authority to own, operate, and maintain a cemetery to a county with a population of 8,200 or less. Fort Bend’s population is about 765,000.
“Throughout the negotiations between the county and school district, it became clear that a statutory fix was needed to ensure all options are on the table for a fair discussion between all parties,” said Xavier Herrera, communications director for County Judge KP George.
The county’s resolution has been sent to Rep. Ron Reynolds for legislative action.
“Because this was a unanimously passed resolution by the county, we expect the Fort Bend delegation to help pass this with Rep. Reynolds leading the way,” Herrera said.
The resolution passed by the commissioners states, “the Commissioners Court of Fort Bend County supports legislation to modify Chapter 713 of the Texas Health and Safety Code to allow Fort Bend County to own, operate, and maintain a cemetery; and use public funds and county resources to perform such.”
“We continue to work cooperatively with Fort Bend County to find a lawful solution for reinterring the remains of the 95 individuals discovered during our construction of the James Reese Technical Center,” FBISD Board of Trustees President Jason Burdine said in a statement on the district’s website. “We appreciate the recent actions by Fort Bend County to step up and present itself as a new partner in these efforts. Like the district, the county has determined that it also does not have the authority to own a cemetery.
“After analyzing all of the options with the county, it has been determined that the county will need to partner with the City of Sugar Land or urge the Legislature to modify the law to allow them to own the cemetery as well. It is a complicated issue, and we appreciate and applaud the county’s and the city’s efforts to partner with us to find a legal way to reinter the remains on site and memorialize the 95 people lost to history.
“We will also continue to seek assistance from the State of Texas with reinterment and memorialization since the convict-leasing program was a state-sanctioned program that existed prior to the founding of the City of Sugar Land and Fort Bend ISD.
“I am optimistic that together we will be able to find a solution that will allow the community to learn from this historic discovery, and to teach our students and others the truth about the state-sanctioned convict-leasing system. Fort Bend ISD has always been committed to preserving the dignity of those buried at the site, and educating our community and students about the role these individuals had in shaping our local economy,” Burdine said.
The district is expected to complete the building without one wing and have it ready to open on time.
“The school is nearing completion without Wing E and will be open and ready for students in August,” said Veronica Sopher, the district’s spokesperson.