What to do about the Sugar Land 95?
The so-called Sugar Land 95 are the 95 convict laborers whose skeletal remains were discovered last February at the construction site of the Fort Bend Independent School District’s James Reese Career and Technical Center. Since then, archeologists have painstakingly excavated and removed the remains for study and preparation for reinternment. The question that is causing so much debate right now is where should they be reburied?
The Fort Bend ISD would like to have them moved to the nearby Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. The cemetery is owned by the City of Sugar Land and city officials have said they would welcome reinternment there. Logically, it is the best place for their final resting place. That, however, doesn’t sit well with many blacks and activists who feel they should stay where they were discovered, each back in their own grave.
The arguments for returning them to their original graves are solid and worth considering. The remains are those of blacks, many of whom were forced back into state-sanctioned slavery through the convict leasing system, which operated here from 1878 to 1910. Through the program, convicts were leased to plantations for hard labor in the sugarcane fields. Many of the convicts were arrested and imprisoned for minor offenses or on trumped-up charges. It was a scheme designed to help plantation owners who lost slave labor at the end of the Civil War.
The laborers who died were buried in a cemetery on the grounds that was eventually lost to time and history. We know that the graves contained at least one 14-year-old boy and one woman. None of them deserved the treatment they suffered. None of them deserved to die in prison, presumably engaged in hard labor to the end. We don’t know their identities, their offenses, or much more about them other than what their bones and scant records can tell us.
They lived hard, difficult lives and even now in death they cannot rest in peace – at least not yet. Once again their fate is in limbo. Last year the school district began construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. Because it had information from local prison historian Reginald Moore that there might be a cemetery on site, the district hired archaeologists from Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., to conduct research. They found nothing, but just before they submitted a final report to the state, crews installing utilities discovered human bones.
Goshawk returned in late February and began months of excavation and exhumations. During that time the city, district, and other interested parties have been conducting public meetings to discuss the disposition of the remains. Ideally, they would go back where they were found, granting them a bit of the dignity they were denied in life. That would require the district to alter its plans for the facility. It’s an expensive option, but one that respects the sanctity of a cemetery. It also shows respect to a race of people that has a long history of disrespect by whites and people in authority.
As much as I like and prefer that position, however, logically it makes more sense to relocate the Sugar Land 95 to the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. For one thing, the cemetery is very close and already has historic designation. It is set apart and well protected. It would be very easy to create a special area at the cemetery where the remains could be reinterred in a very dignified and respectful manner. It would give them much more dignity and respect than they likely received the first time they were buried. It would also provide adequate room for historic markers and displays to talk about that dark chapter of history.
If they were to be returned to their original gravesite, they would be up against a school building. That would be much harder to set apart and protect. It would also be very expensive and time consuming to redesign a multimillion-dollar building already well into construction. It would also be a bad blend of land use. Having a cemetery next to a school is an invitation to vandalism and other juvenile shenanigans.
Finally, I’m trying to look at it from the perspective of descendants of the Sugar Land 95. If my great-grandfather had been so badly mistreated and then hastily buried in a shallow grave, long forgotten, I think I’d like the idea of his remains being properly buried in a quiet, respectful place where he would be remembered and finally given the dignity he deserves. I wouldn’t want him to be resting in a plot where he was hastily deposited, abutting a school and surrounded by parking lots. There is no dignity in that.
While the amateur historian in me is appalled at the idea of moving graves, we are in a unique and unfortunate situation where there is no clear and satisfactory answer. Given the circumstances, I think the best thing to do is relocate the remains to the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery and allow the school district to move forward with its facility as planned. I think that is probably in the best interest for all involved.