Former slaves brought back into bondage through the state’s convict leasing program from 1878-1910 appear to be the people buried in the historic cemetery discovered earlier this year at the construction site of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reece Career and Technical Center.
The revelation was made public July 16 when the school district held a media event at the site in the Telfair subdivision along with representatives of the Texas Historical Commission, Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., and other organizations involved in exhuming and analyzing the 95 graves found at the site.
“So far we have individuals ranging in age from 14 years of age to 50 to 70 years of age,” said Dr. Catrina Banks-Whitley, research associate with the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies and bio-archaeologist and lead anthropologist for the exhumations and analysis at the site. “They’re all male except for one individual of the ones we have analyzed and they’re ranging in height from 5-foot-2 to 6-foot-2 at this point in time.”
As of July 16, a team of about 10-12 archaeologists, led by Reign Clark, Cultural Resources Director with Goshawk Environmental Consulting, had exhumed 48 remains and analyzed 20 of them.
“It looks like folks were exposed to extremely hard labor,” Clark said. “Some of the muscle attachments are just massive.”
Banks-Whitley said she has studied the musculoskeletal stress markers of the adults and handful of children buried there.
“That’s were we look at where the muscle attachments are on the bone and as you continue to do heavy labor over and over again it actually changes the way the attachments on that bone look and in some cases it will change the shape of the bone. And so we can see that the majority of the individuals were doing extremely heavy labor for a very long time,” she said.
In addition to one woman discovered so far, Banks-Whitley said the youngest, age 14, is also the tallest at 6-foot-2.
“All the individuals that have been analyzed thus far have traits of African-American heritage,” Clark said.
He said the people buried at the site were very poor.
“We’ve found almost no grave goods, they’re very Spartan burials – simple pine boxes, the use of square-cut nails,” he said. “You have a few glass fragments here and there sometimes, very few personal affects, simple bone buttons, brass trouser buttons, square-cut nails and one ring so far.”
Other artifacts, including chains, files, bricks, and more, dating to the same time period but not related to specific burials, were on display at the site. The experts said they will likely be cleaned and sent to a museum for display.
According to the school district, each exhumation takes approximately 36 to 48 person hours per grave, followed by four to eight hours for cleaning and an additional 12 to 15 hours for analysis. At the pace they are going Clark anticipates it will take about 40 more days to complete the work and to prepare the remains for re-interment. It has not yet been decided where the remains will go, but it will not be back in the same location.
Determining the history
Clark said the historical record and the physical evidence all point to the shallow graves being those of leased convict laborers.
“We believe the cemetery dates to use before the state took over this area for use as a prison,” he said. “We believe it’s associated with the Ellis Number One convict labor camp. In fact, Bullhead Bayou probably served as the southern boundary for that labor camp. The owner of this property obtained a charter for convict labor from the state of Texas around 1878, so 1878 gives us the beginning mark in time for beginning use of this place as a cemetery.”
Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis purchased failing plantations in the area following the Civil War and formed a partnership that led to the creation of the Imperial Sugar Company.
“Based on the land use here, Litteberry Ellis purchased this property and adjacent properties for a total of 12,500 acres between 1876 and 1878,” Clark said. “In 1878, Ellis obtained a charter for use of convict labor here in pursuit of growing sugarcane. He and his partner held this land until 1910 when the Texas Legislature outlawed the use of convict labor. At that same time the Legislature appropriated funds to purchase a total of 50,000 acres of land in this vicinity, including the land we’re standing on, for use as a penitentiary. That began the use of this place as a state-sanctioned prison, around 1910-1912.”
Banks-Whitley said placement of the graves supports the assumption, noting they were not all buried at the same time, eliminating the possibility of a mass death due to disease or disaster.
“They did not bury everybody at the exact same depth. Some people are very shallow … and we’ve got some where we’ve had to remove over a meter of dirt before we could find the remains,” she said.
Reginald Moore, a local resident and former prison guard, has been studying Sugar Land’s prison history since 1999 and was the one who informed the district they it might find a cemetery at the construction site.
“From research and from geographics and the soil conditions that was here and from other resources that I had, I just knew, and had a good feeling, that this site was conducive to where burials would have been,” he said.
He believes there are more undiscovered cemeteries out there.
“We’re believing there are other camps that were out here and we know that there was one over here where the Lutheran Church is at up on Brooks Street was a camp. We know where the University of Houston (at Sugar Land) is at was a camp, we know there was a camp where the old (Houston) Museum of Natural Science is at, the black prison building, is a camp,” he said. “There is the possibility that for every one of those camps, there is scattered possible grave sites.”
“If we use this site as an analog, probably,” he said.
The practice of leasing convicts was often a tool for re-enslaving freed blacks. Many were incarcerated for minor offenses or on trumped-up charges.
“So they were free men that had been re-institutionalized,” Moore said.
Lost in time
Clark said it is very likely the cemetery was quickly abandoned to time and history. The remains of brick walls likely built in the 1920s are still on the site, overlapping the cemetery.
“The brick structure is visible in 1930 aerial photography,” he said. “But the bricks don’t date from a period much older than that. It’s related to the use of the place by the state as a penitentiary. What you actually see is three walls of brick there. On the back side it was a pole barn. … More than likely it was an implement shed.
“There’s actually two individuals buried there where they built the walls right over them and the builder’s trench for the wall did not enter the burials. So it’s likely the individuals that built this did not know the graves were there until construction of the front wall. We found that a grave was hit and we found that bone material was put back in the builder’s trench. So sometime back in the 1920s it was found that these interments were here,” he said.
Patricia Mercado-Allinger, state archeology division director and state archeologist for the Texas Historical Commission, said discovery of the site after 110 years provides a rare chance to fill in some of the gaps in the historical record.
“The significance of this discovery is that we now have the opportunity to add to our knowledge of the history of Sugar Land and the prison farm history,” she said. “It’s something that Mr. Reginald Moore had always cautioned people about. There had to be burials out here somewhere. It’s been an amazing discovery to make that we never knew we were going to have the chance to discover.”
Clark, who has been onsite since February, said he was exited about the condition of the burials and the information they should yeild.
“The condition of these burials and the placement of these burials, the fact that the burials are fully in place, the articulation, the fact that most of the burials have not been disturbed in any way, the bone materials that is here, the individuals that are here, the preservation is so great that we can learn an unbelievable amount from these individuals – how they lived, essentially how they died, their treatment in the convict labor camp here. It’s truly a closed population of between 140 and 110 years ago that was completely unknown until February,” he said.
Next steps and education
Once all the remains are exhumed and analyzed, a decision will need to be made as to where they will be reinterred.
“Next we are going to need another court order to figure out where we go from here,” said FBISD board president Jason Burdine. “Like most things we do, we’re bound by the law.”
In the meantime, Burdine said construction is continuing at the career and technology center and the district is still aiming at an opening date in the fall of 2019.
“There’s been only one wing that’s been impacted,” he said. “I think we’re going to be able to move the program around as necessary so we can continue on with the center.”
FBISD Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre said the cemetery will have an impact on the new facility.
“It’s going to have everything from high-tech to welding to medical technology. It’s going to be an exciting, vibrant place. And this experience is definitely adding to the feel that this site, this building is going to have,” he said.
Burdine said the district will place an emphasis on history as it relates to the site, but he knows children will likely be telling ghost stories because of the nature of the cemetery.
“I think that we would like to be able to present history in a way – of course there’s always going to be stories and myths and things and I suppose that’s all part of being a kid – but I think we can present this in a way that will honor these people,” he said. “I think it’s important that we find out who they are, where they came from, what it is they did and really just educate our kids. That’s part of the process as well. I would like for students that attend here to know what happened, who these people were, so I think we can turn this into more of an educational story instead of a folk story, so to speak.”
One of those student might be Tyler Burrous. He is a rising junior at Austin High School and was part of a select group of students who got to observe the archeology and exhumations a week earlier.
“We got to see several bodies in the actual gravesites and we learned the process of how they removed the bodies by hand,” he said. “It takes about three hours by hand to get one body out and then remove it bone by bone by bone.”
He said he was honored to be chosen to participate.
“The fact that this is a historical site and I might never get to see something like this ever again. And the fact that there’s over 50 bodies here and it’s science and I think science is really cool,” he said.
Dupre said he is appreciative of Moore’s study and persistence to make sure the cemetery was preserved and the buried individuals honored.
“We appreciate all of his leadership and the guidance he’s provided because he’s given me much information about his research and I think what he has done compared to what we are learning through the archeologists is going to be very valuable to our state and certainly to Fort Bend County and the City of Sugar Land and Fort Bend ISD,” Dupre said.
“I was very elated that perhaps these guys would be recognized; we’d have some kind of memorial in the museum put up, some type of acknowledgement and apology and even some type of restitution for the sweat equity they put in to make this state and this city and this county what it is,” Moore said.