The Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees announced Friday that it will halt legal actions to relocate the 95 bodies found at a construction site and will negotiate to have Fort Bend County take over the cemetery.
Re-burial of the skeletal remains – dubbed the Sugar Land 95 – has been debated ever since they were exhumed last summer following the accidental discovery of the cemetery last February during construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. Following several community meetings the school district and the City of Sugar Land reached an agreement that would allow the remains to be reinterred nearby at the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. The district went to district court to begin proceedings to have the cemetery designation removed from the site so the remains could be relocated, but several community activists protested, saying they should remain where they were found.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George, a former FBISD trustee, urged the county to get involved in the case. Following a unanimous vote of the commissioners court, George and the county attorney were authorized to negotiate with the school district to turn the portion of the site containing the cemetery into a memorial park and cemetery.
The FBISD trustees on Feb. 18 voted unanimously on a similar motion to negotiate with the county. The lawsuit, however, remained until FBISD Board President Jason Burdine announced last week that the lawsuit would be stopped.
“We appreciate and welcome the county’s recent commitment to work with the district toward a solution that preserves the story and memory of those buried on this historic site,” he said in a statement. “In order to show our good faith and commitment to working toward a comprehensive solution, the district will halt all further court action while we explore all available options with the county. The district’s plan to build the portion of the building that is within the cemetery area has been cancelled.”
The Sugar Land 95 are the remains of 95 victims of the state’s convict labor leasing program who were buried in an unmarked cemetery between 1879 and 1910. It was essentially a state-sanctioned form of slavery where blacks were arrested on minor offenses and trumped up charges and leased out by the prison system for hard labor. In this case, they presumably worked at sugar plantations for Imperial Sugar.
Although activists are pleased that the school district and county are in negotiations, they still remain pessimistic that something could go wrong. Samuel Collins, who is on the board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, served on the state board of review for the Texas Historical Commission, and is currently a commissioner with the Galveston County Historical Commission, said the district has halted but not stopped legal action.
“They’ve suspended it during negotiations but if the negotiations fall through the lawsuit is still out there,” he said.
He recommended that the district not try to raise money from the sale of the property to the county.
“They should probably deed it for a dollar,” he said, noting that taxpayers are the ones who ultimately foot the bill.
Reginald Moore, founder and president of the Convict Labor Leasing Project, was pleased with the announcement by the school district.
“I’m grateful they’ve done that,” he said.
It was Moore, who has studied the history of the prison system in Fort Bend County, who first alerted the district that there might be a cemetery on the site. He and Collins have been the most outspoken for the Sugar Land 95 and they have both been invited to speak at Harvard University on March 11.
“A lot of work has been accomplished but we’ve still got a lot to do,” he said.
One thing that both sides do agree on is that the Sugar Land 95 deserve proper memorialization.
“Fort Bend ISD agrees that the Sugar Land 95 need to be memorialized at the site of discovery. We have embraced the offer made by Fort Bend County to work with us to create an appropriate memorial for the victims of the convict leasing system. We are hopeful and optimistic that by working together with the County these bodies can be reinterred so they can rest in peace,” Burdine said in his statement.