The historic cemetery discovered in February at the construction site of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center has been determined to contain graves of black convict laborers who were forced to work the sugarcane plantations following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Of the 94 graves found on the site, 48 had been exhumed as of Monday when the district invited local media to see the site and to interview experts involved in the process. So far, all but one of the bodies have been black males who ranged in age from 14 to about 70 at the time of death in the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s.
“It was definitely an unexpected find out here, although we did have some warning,” FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said.
Reign Clark, cultural resources director for Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., the professional archaeological firm hired by the district, said all evidence uncovered so far indicates the people buried at the site were part of the controversial convict leasing system the state used to help plantation owners replace freed slaves. The practice was ended in 1910.
“We believe this cemetery dates to use before the state took over this area for use as a prison,” Clark said. “We believe it’s associated with the Ellis No. 1 convict 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 marker in time for use of this place as a cemetery.”
None of the remains were made available for viewing, but numerous artifacts from that era that were uncovered from the overburden over the graves were put on display, including several chains, bricks, hoes, files, and other items. Clark said the items date to the same timeframe but were not part of the burials. He said the only items recovered from the graves so far are buttons, nails from the coffins, and one ring. Also on the site are the remains of a tool shed that was built in the 1920s or 1930s over a couple of the graves, indicating they had been lost to history before that time.
One person who refused to let the history be erased is Reginald Moore, who has been studying that part of local history here as it relates to the mostly black inmates who died at the prisons in the Sugar Land area. He cautioned the district last fall before construction began that there might be a cemetery there.
“We’re believin’ that there are other camps out here,” Moore said, noting there are other known convict labor camps throughout the Sugar Land area.
Discovery of the site left Moore with mixed feelings.
“I was very elated that maybe these guys would be recognized” for their contributions to Sugar Land’s success, he said.
He said the excavation uncovers a dark chapter in local and state history and he said he is pleased that more light will now be shed on what he called state-sanctioned atrocities. He hopes the history books will now be rewritten to include the crimes against a people who made great contributions to the wealth and success of Sugar Land and Fort Bend County.
(Editor’s note: A more detailed story about the site and the discoveries will appear in next week’s paper.)