The court-appointed Master in Chancery Michael Elliott identified himself when he arrived late at the Fort Bend ISD Sugar Land 95 task force meeting and was told to sit in the audience. A story last week incorrectly stated he was not allowed to speak. He did not ask to speak. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.
In the first public talks since a district court judge ordered more community input on the future of the 95 graves found at the construction site of the James Reese Technical Center, the Fort Bend Independent School District and community members held two separate meetings at the same time illustrating how much work needs to be done between both parties.
Sam Collins III was a member of the Sugar Land Task Force before it disbanded and was picked up by the FBISD task force. He organized a community meeting for the public and Sugar Land task force members on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, led by Reginald Moore’s Convict Labor and Leasing Project (CLLP) and the Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) community organizing group.
They heard a presentation at the 5:30 p.m. meeting from the court-appointed mediation attorney Michael Elliott, who was named master of chancery by District Court Judge James Shoemake and charged with multiple tasks including gathering community input.
“I’m not for the FBISD or for anyone. My job is to help the judge get the information so he can make an educated decision. We are here to represent justice. I will give the judge a brief update at the status hearing Dec. 18 of what I’ve done. He will hear from the FBISD lawyer and may or may not hear from anyone else,” explained Elliott.
On the other side of town, some members of the former Sugar Land task force, who also signed up for the school district task force, attended a 90-minute session that started at 6 p.m. at the FBISD administration building.
After his presentation in Houston, Elliott and other attendees rushed to the district meeting. Elliott, whose involvement is being challenged in court by the FBISD which says there is no need for his skill sets in what they see as an FBISD issue, was not allowed to speak.
Richard Vogel, a member of the CLLP, and his wife attended the district meeting.
He said he left hopeful with the promise of a “fresh start” but was concerned because not everyone was at the table. He would have wanted to hear Elliott’s perspective and he wanted more to hear Superintendent Charles Dupre’s point of view.
“My wife and I have been in this since the beginning. We know it’s a complicated issue and we are concerned about the 95 people being represented and recognized,” he said.
The discovery of the graves garnered national attention as well as high interest among communities outside of Fort Bend County.
“We are convinced that this has to be settled locally. The question of who the community is is up in the air. The question has come up, who has a right to speak. But we believe it is a local issue,” said Vogel, who wrote a story for the Fort Bend Star depicting an introductory history of the convict labor system which often enslaved free blacks with trumped-up charges and condemning them to hard labor in prison. The prison in Sugar Land was known for its brutality and was called “the Hellhole on the Brazos.”
Vogel said the history is important to know and so is the school’s viewpoint.
“Dr. Dupre’s position needs to be respected by everybody and I lament that a lot didn’t hear him. Since the beginning he has been committed; it happened on his watch and he wanted it to be done right,” said Vogel.
“He wants a memorial at the new school and he said they will not build over the burial site, that is what he will take to the Fort Bend board. That is pretty brave. But he has some political capital since passing that bond issue,” said Vogel, a retired HISD teacher.
Vogel and his wife, a retired FBISD teacher who holds a Ph.D. in history, both sat on the Sugar Land task force. He was not impressed with the Sugar Land task force and was wary of the district’s task force.
“I was skeptical in the beginning but I was impressed with the idea of a fresh start. We saw a lot of people who we’ve been with since the beginning but it was concerning that everybody who was interested was not there. It would have been a smoother transition if everybody was there. Neither one of the meetings had to happen that night and it put a lot of people on the spot and there will be repercussions,” said Vogel.
The district task force is led by facilitator Anid Lee.
After attending the Houston meeting, Collins arrived to hear a few closing comments and made a request to ask a question.
“I told them it was not confrontational but they wouldn’t allow me to speak,” said Collins.
At the Houston meeting, Collins noted that the judge is expected to hold a status hearing 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18. He suggested holding a community candlelight vigil at the site as a way of bringing the community together. That is the idea he wanted to present to the district as well.
Neither Collins nor Elliott were allowed to speak. Elliott said he is pushing forward with information gathering since that is what the judge charged him to do. Collins said he was not trying to compete with the district.
“They had not confirmed they would hold the meeting and a lot of task force members asked for a meeting. Initially, the meeting was set for 6 p.m.,” he said.
They have reached out to DNA companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andme, even though they know they are no longer dealing with bodily fluids.
“They wouldn’t do the work on the 95 but maybe they could partner if they already have relatives in the system,” said Collins, who noted that they have 41 names but don’t have a way to connect the names to the grave contents.
They are hoping to partner with a university. Elliott said the court has yet to decide who will have a legal interest in the case. Moore, a former prison guard who served as caretaker of the cemetery and has been a spokesperson, is hopeful he will have a say in the future of the remains.
The meeting also attracted a new organization called SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice,” a group of white social justice activists
“We see ourselves as being in solidarity with Mr. Moore. We are calling on white folks to get involved by talking to their own people and educate. People are asking what can they do? Start by talking to your own people, that is where the problem is,” said Kathy McDougall, one of the founders of the SURJ.
Liz Peterson is an organizer with SURJ and also serves on the board of Moore’s organization.
“No one knows about this terrible chapter of our history. I was talking with my parents who are in their 70s and they never heard of this. They heard and are horrified. The more people learn the more they care,” said Peterson.
“We just want to support Reginald Moore and see that his vision for justice is brought to life,” said Peterson.