The James Reese Career and Technical Center is still under construction by the Fort Bend ISD, but it is already being haunted by the skeletal remains of 95 black “convict” laborers whose graves were discovered at the construction site last February.
The school district, the City of Sugar Land, and other interested organizations and individuals have been discussing the fate of the remains and on Nov. 19 434th District Court Judge James Shoemake put the brakes on plans that would have re-interred the remains at a neighboring prison cemetery and allowed construction of the building to move forward.
Swatara Olushola, a Houston mother of five, was pleased when Shoemake put the school on hold earlier this month and told the district he wanted more community input. The district petitioned the courts to remove the legal description of an abandoned historical cemetery from the property. They also wanted permission to re-bury the remains, which are still stored on the property in trailers.
“I’m grateful we had a judge hearing the case that was pretty objective about the situation. FBISD has been pretty profit-minded the whole time and the judge didn’t share that,” said Olushola, a task force member who describes herself as a wife, mother, entrepreneur, activist, and musician. “I don’t have a lot of time but I needed to make the time because those remains don’t have a voice, they don’t have a say or anyone to speak on their behalf and they are my communal ancestors. Until we find bloodlines, I have the authority to speak for my communal lineage.”
The bodies were found last February during construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center, located at University Boulevard and Chatham Avenue in Sugar Land.
“Forensics have since revealed that these bodies are those of African American men (and one woman), of an age consistent with victims of Sugar Land’s convict leasing system, circa 1878-1910. Chains and other artifacts associated with this prison labor system were also discovered,” according to the Woodson Research Center at Rice University.
The victims in the prison farm include teenagers as young as 14.
Community advocates, some who served on the city’s task force, are pushing for the remains to stay on the site and for DNA testing to learn the identity of the victims. But they are thwarted by questions of where the money will come to pay for testing.
“The (Fort Bend Independent School) District has consistently stated that the most appropriate and logical location to reinter the human remains is in the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery owned by the City of Sugar Land. This position has been reiterated in all discussions regarding the re-interment and memorialization of these 95 individuals. The district’s representatives on the task force shared this position repeatedly and has never changed from its position or the timeline,” said Chief Communications Officer Veronica Sopher.
“Again, the city manager’s task force was convened to advise the city manager and we appreciated and participated in the process to better understand all viewpoints, but the district stayed firm in our position that the most appropriate and logical location to reinter the human remain is in the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery,” Sopher said.
According to various reports, an estimated $170,000 is needed to identify the bodies. A similar amount has been mentioned as the monthly cost to the school district for construction delays.
Sopher said she has heard and seen those numbers in the media but does not know where they come from.
“We have not been given an estimate of costs for DNA testing. We asked an educational institution for a quote and we’ve been told between $10,000 and $100,000 per person,” said Sopher.
Sopher said construction continues at the part of the site not impacted by the cemetery while higher powers determine the status of the bodies. She and other members of the task force and community activists said they felt as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the bodies will be removed.
“When the judge called the docket, FBISD council stood up and said what they would do would not take more than 15 minutes and we were not sure the advocates and stakeholders would be able to say anything,” said Olushola.
Olushola and other advocates, however, spoke and presented the judge with a petition of 1,700 signatures from Houston area residents opposed to moving the bodies. They told the judge how they felt left out of the process and that an agreement had already been made between the school district and the city of Sugar Land.
“FBISD got before the judge and there is no way to sugarcoat it, they lied about a lot of things. They lied about not being able to do DNA and they said they consulted with community stakeholders who led them to their decision. But they left out the part that the task force voted to leave the bodies where they were, it was unanimous except for those from the board, “ said Olushola.
For the advocates pushing to leave the bodies on site, a series of encounters with officials left them with a bad taste.
Sam Collins III served as a mediator trying to raise the expectations of Sugar Land officials and lower expectations of a wary Reginald Moore, who has been trying to bring attention for years to the prison and the bodies he told the district were buried on the property.
Moore, who is also head of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project (CLLP), and his board questioned the district’s sincerity in pursuing education while resisting efforts to identify the remains. They said the discovery beneath the new school of technology, “presents an unprecedented opportunity for STEM education about archaeology, genealogy, engineering, and mortuary science including an opportunity to participate in what the National Park Service calls ‘Teaching with Historic Places.’ …Hopefully, FBISD will not be guilty of sweeping the area clean of its past as the nation watches.”
Moore said the bodies were found in a segregated cemetery and moving them to the integrated Imperial cemetery erases history.
“The maintenance of FBISD’s control over the remains of these emancipated slaves and where they want them buried not only obliterate the Sugar Land Task Force vote of 19 to 1 but exercises the same level of control over the bodies that the State maintained over its convicts. At issue, is a refusal to protect and preserve an unprecedented historical site, which the Old Imperial Cemetery is not,” he said.
Collins and others said they felt insulted and ignored and then learned that their task force was disbanded and leadership moved to the school district following the city vote to approve moving the bodies.
Collins has served on the National Texas Historical Preservation Board of Advisors for more than 10 years and worked in several communities.
“This experience has been one of the worse experiences I have had in my 10-plus years of preservation work. What was discovered in Sugar Land is one of the most significant historical finds in America. The entire country is watching to see what will happen in Sugar Land and the City of Sugar Land and FBISD continue to treat it as a problem and not an opportunity,” Collins said.
Sopher disagrees with that assessment that they are ignoring the community.
“The advisory committee will be invited to meet as a group and our intention will be to interview each person one-on-one prior to the December group meeting so we can obtain information from your point of you. The December meeting is planned to share the feedback of everyone with the entire group so we can do the important work of healing any anger and resentment from the district’s decision to pursue the strategy it adopted prior to the creation of the task force, listening to all opinions and allowing every voice to be heard and honored,” she said.
Earlier this year, school district officials received approval to exhume the remains. Now they want the courts to rule that the location where the bodies were found, on a portion of the 65 acres the district bought from Sugar Land, is not an abandoned cemetery. And they want court approval to re-bury the remains elsewhere.
“We petitioned for the judge to grant permission to re-inter a previous grant to exhume and to lift the legal designation on that small portion as a historical abandoned cemetery. By statute, we cannot construct on an abandoned cemetery,” Sopher, the district spokesperson, said. “The court said come up with a plan and it will be considered.”
She said the district recognizes emotions are high on this issue.
“It’s an emotional thing. We have to be respectful. We want to be sympathetic and we want what everyone wants. We only exist to educate students,” Sopher said.
“The judge opted to not make a decision. In a practical sense, he did not grant us nor did he deny us. He said I want you to engage a bit more and threw out March as a possibility. But in talking with his office later, that is up for consideration,” said Sopher.
She said the district hopes to complete construction of the facility in August.
“Our plan has always been toward interring those bodies in the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. It was all one camp; there was not a division. It was all the same property,” said Sopher. We make sure we treat them with dignity and respect and find an appropriate re-interment. If there is room and the city is agreeable, it will be at the old Imperial Cemetery,” said Sopher. “We envision a final resting place for the 95 where it is quiet, an opportunity for learning and reflections, an opportunity for people to quite easily access. We don’t believe that (accessibility) is on a campus.”
Collins wants the district to modify the building so the bodies can remain on site.
“Figure out a way to do a land swap, deed a piece of the property back to the city to take care of the cemetery and create a connection between the old prison farm with some kind of walking trail. That would cost more, but would also create an opportunity to bring in more to study that history. But I don’t think the city or school want that kind of tourism,” said Collins.