Sugar Land 95

OP-ED | By Jim Rice –

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class. It is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” Dr. Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964) wrote these words many years ago, but they still ring true today. Dr. Cooper was an educator and one of the most prominent African American scholars in United States history.

Jim Rice

Though our country was founded on the principles of equality and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, we have not always lived up to these high ideals. The Sugar Land 95 serves as a stark reminder of atrocities that occurred in the past during the period of Reconstruction immediately following the civil war.

The term Sugar Land 95 is the collective name for the 95 individuals whose remains were unearthed during construction of Fort Bend ISD’s (FBISD’s) new James Reese Career and Technology Center (CTE) near the corner of Highway 6 and University Blvd. Their graves were unmarked, and the cemetery lost to history. Longtime residents of Sugar Land may recall this area as land that was once occupied by the Central Prison Unit and sold by the state of Texas to private developers.

As FBISD began construction in 2017, Mr. Reginald Moore, a former prison guard for the Central Unit, cautioned FBISD’s Superintendent, Dr. Charles Dupre, that unmarked graves could be in the vicinity. Though the actual prison cemetery with all its records and now owned by the City of Sugar Land exists less than a half mile away, no records of any kind existed to support Moore’s claims. In spite of no extant records, Dupre made the decision to consult with the Texas Historical Commission for guidance on how to proceed. This led to the hiring of an archaeologist who watched over the site as it was being excavated. Months later, a portion of a bone was found and when tested proved to be part of a human femur.

Further excavation of the site was halted, and a thorough examination of the unexcavated site was conducted where eventually the remains of 95 individuals were discovered. The archaeologist determined the bodies had been buried circa 1870 based on the blacksmith forged nails used in the coffins and the fact they were buried twelve feet deep (evidence of the silt depositing ebb and flow of the Brazos River). Further examination revealed the skeletal remains were of African American men all of whom were subjected to hard physical work and died young, victims of the state-sanctioned convict leasing program – a post-Civil War horrific form of slavery.

Some historians agree that in those days, young African American men – selected by their physical size – were arrested on trumped up charges, imprisoned and then leased out to work for the Imperial Sugar factory where many died young from the heavy labor.

At long last, their story is now being told. FBISD has listened to community members and has agreed to not finish building that portion of the James Reese Career and Technology Center where these remains were found. Fort Bend ISD is thankful for Moore’s unwavering dedication to ensure that the Sugar Land 95 receive the respect and recognition they deserve and are entitled to, and we are appreciative of his involvement as we work with him and members of the Convict Labor Leasing Program (CLLP), along with other members of our community, to re-inter the remains of these men exactly where they were found with the over-due dignity and respect to which they were entitled. Plans are being made now for the ceremonial re-interment, and a religious service to be conducted, which will be open to the public. Additionally, FBSID has agreed to donate the quarter acre of land where the remains were discovered and an additional ten acres of land to Fort Bend County for the future development of a memorial park, education center and visitor parking lot for the public’s use. Equally important is FBISD’s decision to include this history into our history curriculum, including field trips to visit this site so that our students will come to know more about the lives of these men, and the conditions they endured.

We are proud of these efforts, of the community’s involvement and of the teaching of our young students. Our aim is to avoid the tragic mistakes of the past and use this as a learning opportunity for the betterment of our society so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Jim Rice was first elected to the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees in 2010. He is not speaking on behalf of Fort Bend ISD or the Board of Trustees as these comments are his alone. The views and opinions expressed in Op-Ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Fort Bend CEO. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of  their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.