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Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19 across the country each year, commemorates the anniversary of Union General Gordon Granger’s arrival in Galveston to proclaim that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas.

That the people of Texas only learned about the proclamation in 1865, some two years after Lincoln first issued it in 1863, is no small part of the story.

This Juneteenth, a group of Fort Bend County residents is working to spread awareness about another belated piece of history – the Sugar Land 95.

“The symbolism of the day is not lost on us,” said Anna Lykoudis-Zafiris, the vice president of a new nonprofit called the Society of Justice and Equality for the People of Sugar Land.

On a 100-degree summer day, several members of the group met to discuss their hopes and dreams for the site, near Fort Bend ISD’s new James Reese Career and Technical Center, where the remains of 95 people were discovered in 2018. Historians have said they were African Americans who were part of a state convict-leasing program to farm sugarcane.

“There are a lot of people who are not aware of the history,” said Debra McGaughey, secretary of the group. “They’ve relegated these people to convicts. But there’s been a renewal nationally in interest about the civil rights movement. And it’s time for the truth to be told.”

Members of the nonprofit organization are working with school district officials as well as officials with Fort Bend County to commemorate the 95 people found at the site, with the goal of raising $20 million to one day build an indoor and outdoor museum near the cemetery, said Robin Cole, the president of the group.

The 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery as it was known before the Civil War, but permitted it as punishment for a crime. Experts estimate more than 3,500 prisoners died between the beginning of the Texas convict leasing system in the 1860s and the end in 1912, according to a Prison Legal News article.

Jim Crow laws and the Black codes made it so that many residents could be enslaved for so minor a fault as not having a job, McGaughey said.

Crews in February 2018 first uncovered the remains of at least 95 people at the site of the James Reece Career and Technical Center, which the district had obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice years earlier.

The 95 people were eventually laid to rest in November 2019, where their remains were first found, according to the district.

The district and county have both been supportive of the group’s efforts to raise awareness, Cole said. A representative for the district, Chassidy Olainualade, has plans to speak at Saturday’s Juneteenth event, she said.

“We want people to know that we value all voices,” Cole said. “That’s why we say we’re for the people of Sugar Land, and not the African-American people of Sugar Land. We want to take a stand when people feel their voices aren’t being heard.”

A journey out to the cemetery today shows a mostly empty field broken up with small gravestones bearing simple descriptions like, “Unknown No. 90.”

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Unmarked graves like this outside the James Reece Career and Technical Center are currently the only evidence of the Sugar Land 95. (Photo by Matt DeGrood)

Experts are currently working to identify via DNA analysis as many of the people buried there as possible, and to determine exactly how many remains rest there, officials said.

“There’s no names associated with the gravestones, no fountains,” Cole said. “That’s no way to provide closure and healing. And that’s why we are beginning the journey to raise funds for the museum.”

Organizers are taking as inspiration the recently-completed National Memorial for Peace and Justice, meant to commemorate Black victims of lynching, in Montgomery, Alabama that opened in April 2018, Cole said. In fact, members of the Fort Bend nonprofit are working with MASS Design Group, the very same architectural group that designed that memorial, on the planned Sugar Land 95 museum, Cole said.

Cole hopes to raise the $20 million necessary to build a museum by 2025, she said.

“Juneteenth celebrates the liberation of Black people,” said Captain Paul J. Matthews, the treasurer of the group and the curator of Houston’s Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. “What better time is there?”

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