Salt on old wounds: Plans sour to memorialize 100-year-old remains of victims at Sugar Land, Texas prison plantation

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Agreements stall to bury Sugar Land 95, a memorial site historicizing one of the harshest penal systems in the US

In Sugar Land, Texas, an unmarked gravesite sits at the center of a contentious battle between Fort Bend county, its school district and community members.

This July, Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) announced that it rescinded its $1 million donation towards the memorial site for 95 African Americans who were unearthed by construction workers in February 2018. 

Initially, the county and FBISD came to an agreement to re-inter remains at the original location of discovery. Plus, there were talks about building a permanent memorial with the county overseeing it. Now, FBISD, through a video release by its superintendent, Charles Dupree, says they will carry out the process on their own.

Two community members looking at the ten acres where 95 remains were discovered in construction of FBISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center.

County judge, KP George confirmed in an email statement to Houston Chronicle that FBISD did not forewarn county officials of their decision and were not being transparent. Said George, “FBISD has sent out various press releases to the community without any input from the county which has caused significant confusion. It seems like they are not negotiating with us in good faith. Other governmental entities had warned us about this which is why they stayed out of the negotiations.” 

After FBISD backed out of the deal, causing confusion on a project that was seen as a progressive move for the region, Fort Bend County district attorney, Brian Middleton, told the Houston Chronicle. “We have to establish that we are a more enlightened society and capable and willing to pay proper respect to victims who perished as a result of the convict leasing system.”

With FBISD’s fiscal withdrawal, concerns grow about the future of an archaeological discovery that holds critical answers on how Texas started its carceral system with convict leasing.

To make things stickier, claims emerge that the land has been disturbed. Reginald Moore, a local researcher and historian said that FBISD looks to have put in some piping in the area. On the other hand, attorney Scott West, the counsel appointed to represent the heirs of the 95 deceased, has filed court documents claiming that photographic evidence shows “many of those graves have been covered by cement for walkways, driveways, or the building.”

Included are reports from Swatara Olushola, one of the community members who has been conducting prayer rites on the grounds. She too says that alterations have been made to the land.

Sugar Land, the hub of the most profitable sugar corporations in the US

Sugar Land suburb, situated just southwest of Houston, was the headquarters of Imperial Sugar, the largest sugar empire in the United States. Started in 1843, Imperial Sugar passed through multiple owners. 

At the burial site, forensic testing showed that the remains of the bodies turned out to be 94 males and 1 female, ages 14 to 70-years-old. They were several dozen out of hundreds of Blacks who worked in Imperial Sugar Prison Farm’s local convict leasing program from 1878 until 1911. According to reports, some bodies exhibited linear hypoplasia, or the inability to properly develop during childhood. All displayed that they performed extremely hard labor. Evidence aligns with the nickname Sugar Land was known by “Hellhole in the Brazos.”

With its history, the site offers significant material to provide more history of the treatment of those incarcerated in the South’s exploitation of cheap, mostly Black labor during post-slavery.

For 50 years after the Civil War, southern states did not have prisons. Rather, they put in place a system of incarceration where those convicted worked where slaves used to toil. From sugar and cotton plantations to farms, mills and even brickyards, the South used this strategy to subsidize the once free labor of slavery with that of cheap labor of those detained.

Research by Matthew Mancini pulled a quote from one of the company workers who leased out those incarcerated. “Before the war, we owned the negro . . . If a man had a good negro, he could afford token him . . . But these convicts, we don’t own’ed. One dies get another.”

The Convict Leasing and Labor Project debunks the notion that many of those detained should have been incarcerated at at all:

Despite the name “convict leasing,” the victims of this system were far from dangerous criminals. Those who were guilty had usually committed mere petty crimes. More often, innocent African-Americans were rounded up for allegedly violating the draconian “Black Codes” designed, immediately after slavery, to uphold white supremacy in the post-Civil War South.

In whole, farms and work yards went unsupervised by state and federal officials resulting in each place having its own system of management, laws and working conditions. Imperial Sugar created the Imperial State Farm Prison, along the Brazos River and Bullhead Bayou, to house convicts to work in dangerous conditions for the production of sugar.

After being in Sugar Land for several generations—providing wealth and jobs for mostly, local whites—the company sold its land and facilities to Texas. The state operated all of the land as a prison until 2011. After the prison shut down, it dolled out acreage to public entities like FBISD.

Today, Imperial Sugar operates under the Louis Dreyfus corporation. It holds 16 refineries and production plants around the world that include Brazil, the US, India, Thailand, Singapore and China.

‘Hell in the Brazos’

Texas quickly gained a reputation for developing one of the most brutal convict leasing programs of the South. Historical documents describe those incarcerated as living in barricades, poorly constructed mobile encampments and iron clad cages housed on commercial trains that transported them to the sites of labor.

“[The Sugar Land burial site] says that crimes against humanity occurred after the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth,” said Kofi Taharka, national chair of National Black United Front (NBUF) who was in talks with Ark Republic about what is now known as the “Sugar Land 95”.

“Texas used our ancestors[’] labor at the ‘Hell Hole on the Brazos’ to fuel its economy. It is the root [and] foundation of the modern Texas Prison System,” he continued.

In many ways, convict leasing showed how Texas fiercely attempted to keep slavery. It was the last state state to announce the Emancipation Proclamation—a doctrine declaring the end of slavery that was put into law, January 1, 1863. With most adhering to the treatise by then President Abraham Lincoln, Texas did not publicly announce until June 19, 1865, 18 months later. Hence the celebration, Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the mass celebration of those formerly enslaved. 

Texas’ reputation for its gross maltreatment of those formerly enslaved carried on through convict leasing. A loophole in the 13th Amendment says that all forms of slavery ended except for criminals, in which all liberties are absconded.  

Convict leasing was practiced in Texas until 1915, when the system was voted out. However, a harsh, racialized penal system was already in place, including the state’s formidable economy. Today, Texas holds the largest incarcerated population, and, if it were a country, it would rank as the tenth largest economy in the world. 

Honoring the bones of their ancestors

NBUF’s Taharka is one of a collective of local leaders that organized to place pressure on the county and FBISD to properly memorialize the site and prevent it from being desecrated.

A group of community members visited Sugar Land burial to perform rituals commemorating the deceased, and also to see if FBISD left the burial ground undisturbed. As they were preparing to perform rites for the people who once laid undiscovered, the group were met by Sugar Land law enforcement and almost arrested. Nonetheless, the collective persists.

Police meet Kofi Taharka, chairperson of NBUF and Swatara Olushola on their site visit to Sugar Land burial grounds. While there, they are almost detained by law enforcement.

“On three different occasions, NBUF and allies have poured libations at the site. One time we had [a] large contingent with drums, spiritualist, offerings etc. Others have done prayer vigils. Our position is that this is a spiritual battle with physical manifestations,” told Taharka.

This week, community members put out Sugarland Demands, a list calling for more control over the building of the memorial. In it, they stated that convict leasing should be considered a crime like the Holocaust. Included, they pointed out that most of the archaeological team were white. The only Black expert on the site was Fred McGhee, a historical archaeologist and urban and environmental anthropologist. Unlike his colleagues, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Texas in archaeology, claimed that he was given limited access.

Also, in the demands, the group calls for DNA testing to properly locate the descendants of Sugar Land 95, including a call for reparations to the community in which they came. 

According to research, it was conveyed that the victims were part of the local Black residents. Fort Bend Independent reported that Catrina Banks Whitley, a bio-archeologist and lead anthropologistdescribed the people buried in the site as a ‘very unique population’ and ‘selection of individuals’ as they are not believed to be local community members.

Although Superintendent Dupree called the actions of activists “divisive,” local advocates are organizing community members to attend FBISD’s board meeting on September 23 to discuss Sugar Land 95.

The unmarked grave at a construction site for a public school bears much irony. A place where African Americans once labored until death, now will be a technical center for careers. Dupree detailed that the construction of the school is on schedule; however, the plans and erection of the memorial remain in limbo.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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