The fate of the skeletal remains of 95 African American inmates that were recently discovered in southeast Texas continues to plague officials in Fort Bend County. Now a task force that had been set up to recommend what to do with the remains is expressing concerns that officials in that county never intended to follow their advice and, instead, plan to move the bodies to a place that may be inaccessible to the public—once again burying an ugly part of this region’s history.
In March, construction workers in Sugar Land stumbled upon an unmarked cemetery while building a new career center for the Fort Bend Independent School District. Archaeologists and anthropologists called in to investigate eventually unearthed the skeletal remains of 95 African Americans prisoners who were buried there in the early 20th century, victims of the brutal convict leasing system under which Texas rented out its prisoners to sugar plantations like the one operated by Isaac H. Kempner and William T. Eldridge, founders of the Imperial Sugar Company.
Activist Reginald Moore had been telling the city for years that such a cemetery likely existed on the site, but he was largely ignored until the March discovery. Fort Bend ISD initially tried to keep Moore away from the dig, but after receiving worldwide media attention school officials and the city decided to change course. In August, Sugar Land created a task force to advise the city on how to properly reinter and memorialize the 95 convict laborers—and invited Moore to be a member.
But after the first three meetings, Moore and several other task force members believe Sugar Land never intended to take the group’s suggestions seriously. On October 17, the task force voted 19 to 1 to recommend that the remains be reinterred in their original location, on the property of Fort Bend ISD. (The only dissenter was Veronica Sopher, the school district’s chief communications officer.) Only two days earlier, the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees had voted to approve a so-called “interlocal” agreement with the city to transfer the remains to the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, a few hundred yards away— the task force’s preferred alternative if the remains had to be moved. On October 23, the Sugar Land city council ratified the interlocal agreement.
“It was made very clear to us that this decision was already made before the task force even voted,” said task force member Jay Jenkins, a project attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “All of us have felt disrespected by both the city of Sugar Land and the school district.” Doug Brinkley, an assistant Sugar Land city manager who chaired the task force, could not identify any recommendations that the city has accepted other than its endorsement of the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery as a second-best location for reinterment.
Sopher, the Fort Bend ISD communications officer, said that state law prohibits school districts from operating a cemetery. To reinter the bodies on the same site, they would have to form a nonprofit organization to maintain the graves in perpetuity— “a complex process contrary to our mission.” Reinterring the bodies would also require altering building plans for the James Reese Career and Technical Center, a 200,000-square-foot facility that was originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.
When the bodies were first discovered, Moore suggested they could be moved to the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, which he oversees. But after performing more research and consulting with other task force members, he now believes they should stay in their original location, honored with gravestones and other appropriate historical markers like New York City’s African Burial Ground. “If that was a Confederate cemetery, I guarantee you they wouldn’t be moving it,” Moore said. “The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy would be standing there night and day to protest it. The Legislature would pass a law preventing it.”
Like Moore, task force member Sam Collins III believes racial bias lies behind what he considers the cavalier treatment of the exhumed bodies. “Certain histories are not valued, and they aren’t protected. Don’t tell me you don’t have resources, because you can see the economic prosperity all over Sugar Land. They have a $245 million budget.”
If the bodies are reinterred in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, the district will pay for burial costs and grave markers, while the city will pay for ongoing maintenance. The current cemetery, which contains the remains of prisoners and guards who died between 1912 and 1942, is surrounded by a locked chain link fence and is inaccessible to the public. The city has expressed interest in adding walking paths, parking, and interpretive historical information, but does not have a budget to fund such improvements. “There is no funding source identified,” according to Sugar Land spokesperson Doug Adolph. “The city went to voters five years ago for park improvements that included enhancements to that cemetery, and that measure was voted down. We have a strong interest in doing some educational things in the future, but none of that has been decided yet.”
As for Fort Bend ISD, it intends to honor the 95 convict laborers in some form in its new career center—perhaps with a display of artifacts recovered from the cemetery, such as ankle shackles. Sopher said the district was treating the cemetery with the respect it deserves. “It was an unmarked, unknown cemetery when construction started. These people had been forgotten to history. The fact that we found them is a blessing in that now they’re going to be named, they’re going to be honored, and they’re going to be in a place that’s marked, where people can visit them.”
Of course, they hadn’t been forgotten by Reginald Moore, who has spent the past two decades trying to spread awareness of the slaves and convict laborers who worked the sugar plantations that gave the city its name. Now that the cemetery has been discovered, the area’s troubled history can no longer be ignored. But it can, apparently, be relocated.