Construction crews in Sugar Land, Texas discovered remains believed to belong to African-American prison inmates from more than a century ago earlier this year. The legal battle over what to do with them is now being waged.
SUGAR LAND, Texas — Reginald Moore sank deep into silent prayer, an electric candle casting a glow on the countenance of Martin Luther King Jr. embossed on his black T-shirt.
Beside him, on the steps of Sugar Land City Hall, 50 others paused in quiet reflection. Eyes closed. Heads bent. Flames flickering in their hands.
Moore shifted from side to side, as if communicating with a spirit. He silently mouthed an invocation. He lifted his hands to heaven.
His mind returned to the moment, a few months back, when he first saw the skeletal remains of 95 African-Americans discovered at a school construction site in Fort Bend County, about 20 miles southwest of Houston.
He thought of those souls in the unmarked graves, laying forgotten for decades in the soil where a convict lease camp once stood. He thought of the free men, women and children ensnared by a system often called “slavery by another name.” How they toiled and sweated and bore the brunt of the lash, until they dropped in their tracks and were buried where they fell.
He envisioned the thread extending from slavery to prison labor to mass incarceration, of the history never covered in textbooks or taught in school. He remembered the parable of the Valley of the Dry Bones, from the Book of Ezekiel.
In the story, the prophet sees a vision of dry bones that are transformed into human figures — covered by flesh and sinew and skin, resuscitated with the breath of life, and raised out of captivity.
Moore moved to the front of the steps and faced the crowd gathered for an evening vigil in honor of the “Sugar Land 95.” Each of the candles they held, now glimmering in the settling darkness, represented one of the people found at the burial site.
They were there, a previous speaker had said, to be the “voices of those ancestors who had been unearthed.”
That call — to give voice to those who have long gone unheard — is being echoed not just in Sugar Land, but around the country where long-hidden grave sites of slaves, former slaves and free blacks have been uncovered in recent years — in a small park in New York City, on a plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, on the campus of the University of Georgia, under a playground in Philadelphia.
Each find illuminates a part of the American story that often goes untold and unmemorialized — and comes amid a national reckoning, a movement to bring attention to those missing chapters. In Sugar Land, that effort centers on resurrecting the names of the forgotten and interring the remains in their proper resting place.
At the vigil, Moore took the microphone for a benediction.
“Lord of our weary years, Lord of our silent tears, we have come a long, long way, but we have a mighty long way to go,” he intoned. “Thank you for allowing those bones to be found, so that they may tell the truth of what happened in the past.”
The first bone was found in February, by a backhoe operator clawing through the dirt on land owned by the Fort Bend Independent School District. By the summer, the remains of 95 people had been recovered on the future site of a career and technical education center.
They were African-American. As young as 14 and as old as 70. With muscular builds, but malnourished, their bones misshapen from back-breaking, repetitive labor. Buried in plain pine boxes, sometime between 1878 and 1911.
Archaeological experts hired by the school district retrieved chains, but no markers. No names.
Moore knew who they were. For two decades, the activist, historian and former prison guard had been telling officials that the ground held the bodies of people who died while in the convict leasing system. Preliminary analysis has supported that conclusion.
As the caretaker of the nearby Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, which holds the marked graves of 33 former state prisoners, Moore researched the history of the city that wears its identity as a sugar town proudly. Sugar Land was named for the Imperial Sugar Company, which is still based here, and the city seal bears the company’s crown logo.
Moore peeled back the official version of the city’s past. He learned that much of Sugar Land, now a sprawling, affluent suburb, had been home to plantations where sugar cane was harvested and boiled. That after the Civil War, land was sold to two Confederate veterans, Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis. That the business partners turned to convict leasing for cheap labor. That prison labor contracts often specified “Negro workers.”
He knew there had to be bodies somewhere on the land near the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, which had been sold to the state for use as a prison. He advised school officials not to build on the property, begged them to do archaeological surveys before starting construction.
But for years, no one in Sugar Land wanted to address that part of the town’s legacy.
Until the remains were found on the school construction site, once known as “Ellis Camp No. 1.”
Suddenly, a light shone not just on Sugar Land, but on a little-talked-about chapter of U.S. history.
“The discovery and unearthing of these human remains provides a moment of reckoning for us to grapple with America’s history. America’s history that, at some times, has been a very dark history and a history as much of unfreedom as it has been of freedom,” said Paul Gardullo, director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
This is, Gardullo said, “a moment for us to take stock of the stories that ought to be told in public spaces like museums, in our towns and communities, and in our schools.”
At the candlelight vigil in mid-December, as children played in front of a towering, brightly-lit Christmas tree, supporters and advocates for the “Sugar Land 95” stood behind placards detailing the horrors of the convict leasing system.
Naomi Carrier, executive director of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, a group working to create a memorial for the remains, invoked the ancestors who “suffered abuses with no apologies.” She called for restitution and reconciliation.
She described the cruelty of the system by quoting historian W.E.B. Dubois: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Under convict leasing, which flourished across southern states after the Civil War and into the early part of the 20th century, state governments leased out convicts as forced labor, exploiting a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime.
The convict laborers toiled in plantations, factories, coal mines, quarries, timber yards and railroads. The vast majority were black, some former slaves, arrested under laws designed to “criminalize common dimensions of African-American life,” said Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name.”
The so-called “pig laws,” which later formed the basis for Jim Crow era segregation laws, included minor offenses such as stealing a farm animal, vagrancy violations, selling produce after dark, speaking loudly in the company of a woman, walking along the railroad tracks and not being able to produce proof of employment.
For petty crimes and trumped-up charges, African-Americans were sent by the thousands to prison camps, where they worked in brutal conditions from dawn to dusk, sometimes serving years of hard labor to pay off a small fine.
In Alabama mines, they were forced to dig eight tons of coal a day. In a Georgia brick factory, they turned red clay into scores of hot rectangles. In Texas, they built the state capitol building in Austin, part of the Texas State Railroad and the Fort Bend County Courthouse, where a legal battle over what to do with the remains of the “Sugar Land 95” is now being waged.
In Sugar Land, many were sent to sugar plantations, where conditions were so horrific the region was called the “Hell Hole on the Brazos.” Prisoners were worked so hard their muscles were wrenched from the bone. They suffered regular beatings, infections from chains that cut into flesh, mosquito-borne illnesses.
“It resembled slavery in every regard. It used the same commercial systems of slavery. It used all the same tactics of torture and compulsion and coercion, the same sexual exploitation of women,” said Blackmon. “It was explicitly established to recreate something as close to slavery as possible but using the criminal justice system.”
For African-Americans who had just started to taste freedom after emancipation, the threat of being sent back into bondage through convict leasing was terrifying — and those in power in the south used it to suppress political activity and other aspirations.
In Texas, inmates sought to escape being sent to prison camps on farms across the state by “slicing their heel strings, hacking off their hands, or gouging out their eyes,” according to accounts cited in Blackmon’s book.
One prisoner said he lost “the prime of my life … as a slave.” Another said he had been “buried alive … dead to the world.”
In at least one regard, said Blackmon, convict leasing was even worse than slavery.
Unlike slavery, the business owners had no financial incentive for keeping their workers alive. If one died, they would simply lease out a replacement. Between 1866 and 1912, an estimated 3,500 prisoners died in Texas alone.
Including those buried in the field in Sugar Land.
Moore, a devout Christian who attended seminary school, had long heard their voices calling. He thought of Luke 4:18, his favorite Bible verse, as his mission statement.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Moore recited. “He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, restore sight to the blind and set the captives free.”
Until the “Sugar Land 95” are given a proper memorial and burial, he said recently, “those people are still in bondage.”
For the time being, the remains are stored in a blue storage pod on the school construction site, by the rising frame of a new 200,000-square-foot vocational school. Mounds of dirt show where the bodies were excavated.
The Fort Bend school district wants to relocate the remains to the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, about a half-mile away. But Moore says they do not belong at that graveyard, which is enclosed by a chain link fence, holds mostly white prisoners who died after convict leasing had ended, and is prone to flooding.
A task force, set up to recommend what to do with the remains, agreed — voting 19-1 to bury the “Sugar Land 95” on the land where they were discovered. (The dissenting vote was cast by school district spokesperson Veronica Sopher.)
The school district filed a petition seeking permission to move the remains, but District Court Judge James Shoemake is not expected to make a decision until March. He has appointed attorney Michael W. Elliott as a mediator to work toward a resolution.
The district contends that a school site is not the appropriate setting for a graveyard and memorial. The task force and community members, including Moore, say it is disrespectful to move the remains.
At the heart of the debate are questions being raised across the country: Whose stories are being told? Whose past is being honored?
Discoveries such as the one in Sugar Land can help tell a more complete American history, one that includes the “hidden stories of African-Americans,” said Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
“We’re at an important inflection point in our nation about the ways our collective past is reflected in our culture and our public spaces,” Leggs said. “When we create an American landscape that speaks truthfully about who we are as a nation, I believe we can change the way our nation thinks and the way that we relate to one another.”
The Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, are working to tell the full American narrative. So is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, which opened in April in Montgomery, Alabama.
At the University of Georgia, a memorial will be erected in memory of slaves and former slaves buried on the campus, while across the country, Confederate statues are being taken down.
In Texas, more than 220 historians have also signed onto a letter, circulated by historian Caleb McDaniel of Rice University in Houston, urging Fort Bend officials “to make choices that acknowledge the national significance of this discovery.”
“No other burial ground like this has been found,” said McDaniel. “The history of convict leasing is really important for Americans today to understand. It reminds us of how resilient racism was after the Civil War and the end of slavery, and it’s a reminder we still need in the present.”
He noted that many southern states have laws protecting Confederate monuments, but sites associated with African-American history often have no such statutory protections.
In Sugar Land, officials have the names of about 20 inmates who may have died at the camp on the construction site, but only one body, thought to be of an amputee prisoner, has been tentatively identified, according to a court filing. The school district says it can’t conduct DNA testing without the approval of the Texas Historical Commission; the commission says it doesn’t have the authority to order invasive testing. The state Attorney General’s office has been asked to weigh in.
For those advocating for the “Sugar Land 95,” the remains represent more than a piece of history. They are a tie to ancestors who never received justice in life, who deserve to have their names remembered, their struggles commemorated.
That is still missing in Sugar Land, Moore says. On a drive around the suburb, he pointed to streets and subdivisions named after plantations. He gestured to the water tower bearing the Imperial Sugar symbol, noted that the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation is selling a 2018 Christmas ornament paying tribute to plantation owner Littleberry Ellis.
He flashed back, once more, to the moment he first saw the remains from the former Ellis Camp No. 1.
After so many years of researching the stories of African-Americans forced to labor in convict leasing, so many years of insisting that a burial ground might be there, of being “the lone voice in the wilderness,” he could bear witness to an undeniable truth: “They existed.”
He won’t let that again be forgotten.
Follow Monica Rhor on Twitter: @monicarhor.