Cold Spirits of Sugar Land

Madi Babine

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The roar of the cars passing by made the scene feel as if it was insignificant. The bodies that workers covered with tarps had been sprawled across the ground. They were not visible, out of view from the street.

Newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle reported that storage containers are holding the remains behind the school off Highway 90, the one in Fort Bend ISD that appears to be almost halfway done.

When Sugar Land, with a population of over 88,000 and over 35 schools in Fort Bend ISD, planned to open a new career and technical center, city officials hired a company to break  ground for the project and an operator came across something unexpected: human remains.

That happened in February 2018 and archeologists began searching for more bodies in the area. According to a 2018 Houston Chronicle article “Historic cemetery found on construction site of Fort Bend ISD’s future technology center,” over 95 bodies had been discovered by April and FBISD was granted permission to exhume the bodies in June. The bodies were all African-American men, with the exception of one white male, who were part of the convict-leasing program at the Central Unit. The bodies date back to between 1878 to 1911, the Jim Crow era . The ages of death ranged from 14 to 70 years old.

 

History of Sugar Land’s convict-system

Sugar Land, in Fort Bend County, is one of Texas’ most affluent and fastest-growing cities and home of the once famous Imperial Sugar Company and enormous sugar plantations.

But a century ago, the city also was known to many as the “Hellhole on the Brazos.”

In the mid 1800s, prisoners and convicts serving time in the Imperial State Prison, or Central Unit, were forced to work ruthlessly and countless inmates died from diseases, malnutrition and overworking. According to a transcript of the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas in 1883, the prisoners worked until they “dropped dead in their tracks.” This is what earned the Prison’s nickname — “Hellhole on the Brazos.”

Slavery was abolished in 1865, but Texas cheated the law. The Central Unit set up a convict-leasing system, which leased out prisoners to private companies. Former plantations were then transformed into prison farms to force the convicts into labor.

Reginald Moore, a guardian/caretaker of the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery explained how this system was “more or less slavery by a new name.”

To many, this is of the past, but Mr. Moore, he has been searching for the bodies for nearly two decades.

“These people were used, abused, neglected and taken advantage of without any recognition…I feel like it was an atrocity and somebody had to speak up for them,” Mr. Moore explained.

According to a 2018 Houston Chronicle article titled “Fort Bend ISD finds historic cemetery near construction site,” Mr. Moore had pleaded with the city for many years to survey the land near the cemetery, as he believed bodies were lying under the ground.

When FBISD broke ground for the new facility, Mr. Moore watched the construction progress, anxious for what they would discover.

“They’ve been trying to hide this history for years, and now we can finally hold them accountable for the atrocities that happened that they didn’t want to be exposed,” commented Mr. Moore on the discovery of the graves.

Mr. Moore explained how the discovery of the bodies “was just overwhelming…And then sad at the same time, because now [he knows] these guys are here. This really did happen,” he said, in a 2018 Washington Post article, “Bodies believed to be those of 95 black forced-labor prisoners from Jim Crow era unearthed in Sugar Land after one man’s quest.”

 

‘Human lives were not of value’

A survivor of the prison, Bill Mills, a former inmate, wrote about his time at the Imperial Farm in his 1910 book “25 Years Behind Prison Bars.”

“Human lives were not of value…The guards often said the men did not cost them any money and the mules did. That’s why there was more sympathy for the mules than for the men,” Mills wrote.

According to Mr. Kenneth L. Brown, professor of anthropology at the University of Houston, who advised Mr. Moore, the bodies discovered showed signs of stress and trauma: gun shots, severe whippings, beatings and malnutrition. It appears on the site as if the bodies were buried simply where people “dropped dead.” Some of the bodies were buried with tools.

Mills continued to explain in his book that “[The] whipping was not whipping with a bat…[the guard] would sit on his horse and whip the men like oxen, any place he could hit.”

 

May not be the only African-American cemetery

The gruesome conditions the prisoners experienced led many anthropologists and archaeologists to believe there may be more cemeteries undiscovered in the Sugar Land area.

Mr. Brown said he believes there are “at least three other similar cemeteries” that have yet to be discovered in Sugarland and the adjacent Missouri City, Texas.

He described how the crimes committed by the convicts ranged from murder to jaywalking, with both receiving several years of hard labor. The true goals of the convict-leasing systems, he said, which were owned and run by private companies: “Their only incentive was to produce sugar.  The more they spent on food, better housing, medical care, etc. the less profit they made. There was little to no investigation of deaths from over work, mistreatment, lack of food, so they could do pretty much as they pleased as long as they made a profit and paid the state for their lease.”

 

Message from the FBISD board

In November 2018, a judge denied FBISD permission to relocate the remains to the Old Imperial Farm cemetery a half mile away from the burial site.

“This find is very different from any other …… Families and communities are affected by this. You came here for permission (to build the school), I’m not going to give you permission,” said Judge James Shoemaker, according to a court transcript.

However, a 2019 Houston Chronicle article, “Protesters rally against Fort Bend ISD’s plans to move skeletal remains of Sugar Land 95,” reported that FBISD resumed construction on the campus and has begun accepting applications and on Feb. 22, the FBISD board of trustees voted unanimously to find an alternate site for the FBISD facility to memorialize the bodies despite the construction progress made already made on the burial site.

Jason Burdine, the president of the board released a press statement pertaining to the decision of relocating the facility: “Fort Bend ISD agrees that the Sugar Land 95 need to be memorialized at the site of discovery…We are hopeful and optimistic that by working together with the county these bodies can be interred so they can rest in peace.”