In a unanimous decision Monday night, the Fort Bend Independent School District Board of Trustees authorized Superintendent Charles Dupre to negotiate an inter-local agreement with Fort Bend County regarding a memorial for the Sugar Land 95.
“This mirrors the action taken last week by the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court,” said school board president Jason Burdine.
“We agree that the state-sanctioned convict leasing program was an oppressive system and we remain hopeful that an agreement will lead to the preservation and memorialization of the individuals discovered at the site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center,” said Burdine.
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.
The district’s action, however, does not mean they will necessarily drop the lawsuit currently before Judge James H. Shoemake in 434th District Court.
“It won’t affect the court case at this point,” said the board president.
The school board meeting was still going on well past the Fort Bend Star’s deadline, but Burdine took a moment to text the Star following the 6-0 unanimous decision to approve negotiations. The seventh board seat was vacated last month by former school board member KP George, who won election as county judge. It was George’s decision to ask the county’s historical commission to advise the county commissioners court on how it should respond to a lawsuit filed by the school district seeking removal of the cemetery designation and allow relocation of the bodies found there.
George said he got involved because he felt the school district was not listening.
“The FBISD acted as if they were the only party in the discussion. As the top county elected official, I am responsible for all, alive and dead, and they are citizens of Fort Bend County. The Sugar Land 95 never were served justice,” said George. “As a civilized society, we have an obligation to serve justice.”
The district has stated all along that they are not equipped to maintain a cemetery. The county has that authority. Now the county and the district will hammer out the details of tasks.
Before entering closed session to address multiple issues including the status of the Sugar Land 95, the board heard from the public, many who came to discuss potential movement on the complicated issue.
Reginald Moore, president of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project (CLLP) and who for years was the lone voice warning that bodies could be present in unmarked graves, was feeling optimistic over the possibility of collaboration. He applauded the school district for its willingness to work with county commissioners and said “the potential for results is huge. It will help to heal our local community and signal to the nation that the city of Sugar Land and schools are on board.”
Moore was also excited about some Sugar Land 95-related state bills introduced by state Rep. Ronald Reynolds including House Bill 51 calling for a joint interim committee to study the legacy of convict leasing in Texas and House Bill 55 bill “directing the State Preservation Board to initiate steps to provide for the replacement of the Children of the Confederacy plaque with a plaque to honor victims of the state’s convict leasing system.”
Naomi Carrier, executive director of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project noted the CLLP and the school district have clashed in the past but she saw potential opportunities for everyone.
“While we have been at odds in the past, we have always wanted to collaborate with the district. Recent developments are presenting us with this new opportunity for unprecedented collaborations. In the spirit of this new partnership, we request FBISD to stop all legal proceedings regarding removing the remains,” said Carrier.
The matter of legal action was a sticking point for Houston mother and Sugar Land 95 advocate Swatara Olushola.
“We had a small victory last week with the commissioners joining the legal process. But the fact that we have to go through a legal process for basic human dignity is an issue for me and everyone should know you (school district) don’t want the judge knowing all the facts. The FBISD has been completely disrespectful through the entire process. And don’t build a memorial with inmate number one or inmate number two. We need to bring families into the process. This is their legacy. As free laborers they literally built this city for Imperial Sugar,” said Olushola.
Carrier said the group’s long-term plan is the creation of an “Interpretive Center for Education and Reconciliation.”
She asked the district to consider negotiating an additional five acres of land for the center surrounded by a memorial park whose usage could be a collaboration between the county, city and school district.
Carrier wants the CLLP to be one of the organizations that have custody of the artifacts as they are in the process of becoming a certified repository, she told the board.
She marveled at the collaborative possibilities and the ability to link with the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture and the National Park Service, “Teaching with Historic Sites” program.
“Our real partnership begins with healing our local relationships and beginning to establish opportunities for collaborative planning,” said Carrier. “We envision the entire historic site as not only attracting national attention but stimulating heritage tourism for the state of Texas, the county and the city of Sugar Land wherein the school may bring their students for field trips. This is indicative of CLLPs’ plans for programming in its Interpretive Center for Education and Reconciliation,” said Carrier.
U.S. Rep. Al Green, who along with several elected officials penned a letter to the school district asking them to return the bodies to their original graves, attended the board meeting and asked several elected officials to stand with him as he addressed the board.
“I’m here because I love my country, and an injustice has been perpetrated but we have an opportunity to right a wrong. This is an opportunity for us to show the world that we will respect the remains of people regardless of who they are. We will treat them with respect and dignity because that is what a great country, a great community does,” said Green. “Let us not waste this opportunity. There is only one race, the human race that we are all a part of, let’s make a positive difference and do justice for the Sugar Land 95.”
After announcing the trustees unanimous decision, Burdine added, “unlike a public school district, it is legally permissible for a county to operate a cemetery. We remain committed to educating future generations about this piece of history.”