Sugar Land 95 exhibit

Pictured is the exhibit that Fort Bend ISD unveiled last week to the Sugar Land 95.

A veritable who’s who of Fort Bend County leadership and regional faces filled the room last week at the James Reese Career and Technical Center for the unveiling of Fort Bend ISD’s exhibit meant to honor the Sugar Land 95.

A host of student singers and several speakers, including FBISD’s coordinator of community and civic engagement, helped usher in the new display by reminding attendees about the effort it took.

“The four-year anniversary of the discovery of the Sugar Land 95 is this Saturday,” said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, the district’s community and civic engagement coordinator. “In one sense, four years have gone by fast. But this is a long-awaited day, and many have joined us on this journey.”

FBISD’s exhibit honoring the Sugar Land 95 is the result of more than a year of work that began after construction crews in February 2018 first uncovered the remains of at least 95 people at the site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. The district had obtained the land from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice years earlier.

The 95 people were eventually laid to rest in November 2019, where their remains were first found, according to the district.

Experts say the people buried there were African American and part of the state’s convict leasing system. The 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery as it was known before the Civil War, but permitted it as punishment for a crime. Experts estimate more than 3,500 prisoners died between the beginning of the Texas convict leasing system in the 1860s and the end in 1912, according to a Prison Legal News article.

The discovery was momentous, not just in Fort Bend County, but across the nation because it’s the first confirmed prison cemetery for the convict leasing system, according to one researcher who spoke last week.

“The only evidence of their lives were these unmarked graves,” she said.

Bill Martin, an archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission, attended last week’s event to announce that the site had been selected to receive a free historical marker informing people about the state’s convict leasing system.

It was one of 15 state sites chosen this year, and is only the second site in Fort Bend County to receive a free historical marker through a state program meant to raise awareness about underrepresented historical events, Martin said. The first is a marker for the 1953 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Adams, which held that white-only pre-primary elections were unconstitutional.

The petitioners in the case were Black voters in Fort Bend County.

Martin also handed out a series of awards to people who helped raise awareness about the Sugar Land 95 discovery in 2018, from members of the construction crew who first discovered the bodies up to the investigators on the case.

But Martin saved his biggest praise for Reginald Moore, a Fort Bend County resident who died in 2020, and was instrumental in bringing the history of convict leasing to light.

“The impetus behind all of this was Reginald Moore,” Martin said.

Olainu-Alade also praised Moore in her comments, saying she was given the perfect instructions for bringing this exhibit to life because of Moore’s work.

Late in 2021, the district’s board of trustees approved a $170,000 contract with a renowned architecture firm to design an outdoor exhibit space and cemetery for the Sugar Land 95.

The district contracted with MASS Design Group, a Boston-based architectural group that has focused in recent years on museums and exhibits geared toward forgotten aspects of history and racial justice.

The firm garnered honors in recent years for its work on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Also informally known as the National Lynching Museum, the facility sitting on a 6-acre site overlooking the Alabama state capitol opened in 2018 and is dedicated to the more than 4,400 victims of racial lynchings across the south, according to a New York Times article about the memorial.

The facility took as its inspiration such renowned architectural feats as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, according to the Times.

The educational exhibit that the district unveiled last week will open to the public sometime in early March, Olainu-Alade said. Shortly after that, the design firm will begin work on the second phase of the Sugar Land 95 memorialization project, which will include building an outdoor learning plaza and a revitalized cemetery.

“Phase 2 will be just as important,” she said.

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