Although it is no secret that much of Sugar Land and most of early Texas was built upon the backs of black slaves, little is known or acknowledged about the continued use of slave labor following the Civil War. These skeletons in Sugar Land’s closet are crying out with ghost stories of their own.
Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis formed a partnership that led to the creation of the Imperial Sugar Company. They built their empire by buying up local plantations from owners who could no longer make a go of it after the end of the war and slavery in 1865. Although the war was over, slavery was not – at least not for the owners of Imperial Sugar.
From 1878 to 1910 they utilized the state-sanctioned use of leased convict labor to work their sugarcane crops and do much of the hard labor involved in bringing sugar to market. Almost all of the convicts were black and former slaves. Many of them were incarcerated for minor offenses and trumped up charges.
The leased convict system was designed as a way to keep slavery going long after it had been made illegal. The convicts got little or nothing (usually the latter) for their work while the state pocketed a tidy sum from their efforts. The plantation owners got cheap labor and higher profits.
In 1910 the state put an end to the dubious practice, but by then the damage had been done. There are 95 bodies testifying to the crimes committed against them in the cemetery. As of July 16, the day the school district invited the media to see and learn about the exhumations, the experts had removed 48 of the bodies. Of those that had been analyzed, all were black, one was female, and they ranged in age from 14 to approximately 70 years. All showed signs of extreme stress and hard labor.
Among the artifacts found that were not related to the individual burials but were related to the time period were chains, the heads of hoes, and other tools. That means children worked alongside the elderly, bound by chains as they performed ungodly tasks in the relentless Texas heat and humidity.
They didn’t have such modern conveniences as insect repellant or sunscreen. Despite the hard labor and long hours, no one provided for them or their families.
The state and the sugar company benefitted greatly from this atrocity. The laborers in this particular case only received an early death and burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Had it not been for the accidental discovery of bones while a water line was being trenched to service the new building, these individuals would remain undiscovered, paved over and forgotten for all time.
There is one person who hadn’t forgotten. Reginald Moore has been studying Sugar Land’s prison history and had a pretty good idea there was an unmarked cemetery at the site. At first no one took him seriously. They do now. Because of his persistence, the school district did keep an archeologist on site during construction.
Once the foundation was set and no human remains found, the archeologist left and was about to file a report when the discovery was made. The graves are not under the building nor the parking lot, so most of the construction could continue once the perimeter of the cemetery had been determined.
One of the things I’ve learned and appreciated about the Texas Historical Commission over the years is its commitment to honoring the slave population. I was working in Hempstead when Bernardo Plantation was discovered. The archeologists there were just as determined to discover and document the artifacts of the slave quarters there as they were the plantation house.
Later, when I was working in Sealy, I did a lot of reporting on the archeology being done at San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site. There, too, an extra effort was being made to document artifacts associated with slaves. Now here in Sugar Land, this entire project is focused on slaves. The artifacts and evidence are painting a new picture in this dark chapter of Texas history.
This presents a great opportunity to right some wrongs and play long overdue tribute and honor to these men, women, and children who contributed so very much to the success of the state and this city. We will re-write the history books with the things we are now learning. We can never repay the debt owed them but we can now pay them tribute, dignity, and honor.
By literally digging up the past we have a chance to forge a new future enlightened by the stories these bones have to tell us. This is a chance to better understand our past and our prejudices, and to work for a future together where everyone’s contributions are acknowledged and appreciated and none are forced. This is an opportunity to come together, heal generational wounds, and to move forward in a unified future. This part of our past is hideously ugly and brutal. Our future is what we make of it. Let’s make it a good one.