Driving through Sugar Land, the suburb of 90,000 half an hour southwest of Houston, you can see the signs of growth everywhere. There’s the Smart Financial Centre, a $90 million, 6,400-seat concert venue that will celebrate its grand opening this month with a stand-up set by Jerry Seinfeld. Next door is the University of Houston’s Sugar Land campus, which will soon break ground on a 150,000-square-foot classroom building. The past decade has brought a new terminal for the city’s regional airport, a $37 million stadium for the city’s Minor League Baseball team, and an outpost of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, complete with its own T. rex. In 2014 Money magazine named Sugar Land the best small city in America to find a job, noting the number of Fortune 500 companies with a major presence there.
But hidden amid this prosperity is a reminder of a forgotten past. Off U.S. 90, behind a bustling shopping center, is a small cemetery surrounded by two concentric rings of chain-link fence. Inside are several dozen crumbling headstones, inscribed with the names and prison numbers of the convicts who died working the sugar plantations that gave the city its name. Most of the convicts died young. Will Stewart, number 50201, died in 1924, at the age of 30. Fred Carson, number 29760, died in 1917, at the age of 28.
The Old Imperial Farm Cemetery has been preserved thanks largely to the efforts of one person, 57-year-old Reginald Moore, a hulking giant of a man who played left guard at Yates High School, in Houston’s Third Ward, and at what was then called the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Now living in an unincorporated area of Harris County just outside Sugar Land, Moore has spent much of the past two decades on a one-man guerrilla campaign to force city officials to commemorate the convict-leasing system that flourished here in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “They’re trying to hide it,” Moore recently told me. “They’ve done everything they could to run me off, to keep me out of the cemetery. And they’re still fighting me.”
Moore first became interested in the subject while working a brief stint as a prison guard over thirty years ago. In 1985, during the oil bust that crippled Houston’s economy, he was laid off from his job as a longshoreman at the Houston Ship Channel. Desperate for work, he became a guard at the Jester State Prison Farm, in Richmond. It was a period of dramatic upheaval for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which was then known as the Texas Department of Corrections. Five years earlier, as a result of a lawsuit against the state by a group of prisoners, a federal district judge had ordered the TDC to reduce overcrowding, provide better medical services, and hire more black and Hispanic guards. Moore, who is black, was one of the first beneficiaries of that court order. He arrived to find a prison that seemed stuck in the nineteenth century, with mostly black convicts working the fields under the eyes of shotgun-toting white men on horseback.
“It reminded me of a plantation, the way the guards treated the inmates,” Moore recalled. “You could see and feel the oppression. Even before I learned the history, I felt it.” Moore’s arrival at what is widely referred to as the Jester Unit coincided with the beginning of the crack-cocaine epidemic, and he had a front-row seat to the effects of the war on drugs. “I saw the prison population blossom and bloom,” Moore said. “I saw guys in the community go to prison, get out, then go right back in, because if you had just a little pebble [of crack] you went to jail.”
Disturbed by what he was seeing, Moore began researching the history of the Jester Unit. He learned that it sat on land that was part of the 97,400-acre tract granted by the Mexican government to Stephen F. Austin in 1823 for his services as impresario. Like most of the Anglo settlers he brought to what was then northern Mexico, Austin was a Southerner, and he saw Texas as fertile ground for creating the kind of cotton plantations that were flourishing across the South. In his recent book Seeds of Empire, University of North Texas historian Andrew Torget writes that “the rapid movement of U.S. expatriates into northern Mexico was—more than anything—a continuation of the endless search by Americans during those years for the best cotton lands along North America’s rich Gulf Coast.” Integral to cotton farming was slavery, which Austin encouraged by granting settlers 80 acres of extra land for each slave they brought with them.
Texas would become one of the biggest cotton-producing regions in North America, but it was a different commodity—sugar—that transformed the fertile banks of the Lower Brazos. In 1838 three brothers, Matthew, Samuel, and Nathaniel Williams, started one of the first sugar plantations in Texas on property in what is now Sugar Land that had been granted to their family by Austin himself. By the 1850s, sugar was a major industry in Fort Bend, Matagorda, Wharton, and Brazoria counties, which became known as the Sugar Bowl of Texas.
Like cotton plantations, sugarcane plantations relied heavily on slave labor. Harvesting cane was even more arduous than picking cotton. Slaves worked around the clock during harvest season to cut the sugarcane, press out the cane juice, boil it down, and then pack the finished product onto trains to be shipped around the country. “Sugar work was about as bad as you can imagine,” said Sean Kelley, a historian of early American history at the University of Essex. “People got sick, they died. Women’s fertility rates plummeted. Europeans quickly discovered that you couldn’t get people to work in this voluntarily, which is why there’s a strong historical linkage between sugar and slavery.”
Then came the Civil War. The South’s defeat and the abolition of slavery plunged the Texas economy into a depression. Deprived of their labor force, most of the sugar plantations on the Lower Brazos went bankrupt. One of the few that survived was the Williams plantation, which was purchased after the war by Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis, business partners and Confederate veterans.
Cunningham and Ellis survived the abolition of slavery by finding a new source of cheap labor: the Texas prison system. Although they weren’t the first growers to use convict labor, they were the biggest: in 1878 they signed a contract with the state to lease Texas’s entire prison population. This was perfectly legal, since the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, made one very consequential exception: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Italics added.)
In the years before the Civil War, Texas’s state prisons had held around two hundred inmates, all kept at a single facility, in Huntsville. After abolition, the prison population exploded, disproportionately with black men. Unable to house and feed all the new prisoners, the state began renting them out to private companies, who were grateful for the supply of cheap labor.
As he learned more about this history, Moore began to see a parallel between the laws that were used to unjustly incarcerate freed blacks after the Civil War and the laws that were being used in the war on drugs to incarcerate blacks. He visited library archives in Houston and Galveston to look at so-called travel cards, which prisons used to keep track of inmates after the Civil War. “I would read those travel cards, and a big proportion of the blacks were in there on cases where they should have been doing probation or paying a fine,” Moore said.
The working conditions in Cunningham and Ellis’s sugar fields were as bad or worse than they had been on the slave plantations. Mosquito-borne epidemics, frequent beatings, and a lack of medical care resulted in a 3 percent annual mortality rate. The plantation soon became notorious across the state as the “Hellhole on the Brazos.”
Between 1906 and 1908 the plantation and its sugar-processing operations were bought up by Isaac H. Kempner, of Galveston, and William T. Eldridge, of Eagle Lake, who formally incorporated as the Imperial Sugar Company. Although Eldridge had used convict labor on another farm, Kempner was opposed to the practice and began planning to transition to free labor. To attract a new labor force, the two men established a company town, Sugar Land, with worker housing, stores, and a modern hospital.
Texas’s experiment with convict leasing was coming to an end anyway. In 1910, following a series of newspaper investigations of the Texas prison system, the Legislature formally ended the practice; by 1914 all prisoners were back under the exclusive control of the state. From then on, the only entity that would benefit from the coerced labor of prisoners would be the Texas Department of Corrections.