The Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) recently released a report regarding the “Sugar Land 95,” a document which advertises comprehensive research and transparency in the quest for justice. While FBISD’s report represents an improvement over the tight-lipped behavior the district has thus far shown, there continue to be major issues with their recollection of the past. Over the past years, the Convict Leasing and Labor Project and its founder, the late Reginald Moore, have worked to bring a fully accurate story of the Sugar Land 95 to light, so that they might inform us of the region’s exploitative past and point us towards a more just future.
A century and a half ago, in the name of cheap labor and white supremacy, major landowners such as Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis helped propagate a system of exploitation that would drive the growth of the region’s sugar industry throughout the 19th century. Though most obviously manifested as chattel slavery, this system persisted after the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. It did so with an assist from the State of Texas, which leased thousands of convicts, many of them Black, to Cunningham and Ellis and other area planters. Funneled through a corrupt legal system which charged and sentenced them with petty crimes designed to marginalize the formerly enslaved, many were “convicts” in name only. Their criminal convictions served as a mere formality to get them on sugar plantations, where they were brutalized by guards and worked in conditions as bad or worse than those that prevailed in the era of slavery. Convicts on area sugar plantations toiled non-stop in the Texas heat, lived in quarters rife with vermin and disease, and faced sadistic punishments and senseless killings.
Decades later, the land on which these men and women were brutalized, tortured, and killed became a valuable commodity and was scooped up by developers looking to capitalize on Sugar Land as the next suburban boomtown. In 2002, the Texas General Land Office sold 2,018 acres including much of the Central State Prison Farm land to Newland Communities to build Telfair, a master-planned residential and commercial development. The deal involved the scandal-ridden Texas Permanent School Fund. With many locals still unaware of the history of the land and developers incentivized to ignore it, there was a lone voice, the late Reginald Moore, that tried to bring this issue to the forefront as soon as the land went on the market.
Like the land’s brutal history, Mr. Moore’s pleas were ignored, and not only by developers. In 2011, despite hearing from Mr. Moore for years that this land may contain the bodies of those brutalized on Sugar Land’s convict leasing camps, the Fort Bend Independent School District purchased 65 acres of land from Newland Communities. This purchase, which would ultimately turn up the bodies of the Sugar Land 95, is not mentioned in FBISD’s recently released report.
In early 2018, construction workers contracted by Fort Bend ISD uncovered the remains of 95 African Americans who are believed to have labored under the convict leasing system in Sugar Land, Texas, exactly as Mr. Moore had warned. They are the Sugar Land 95. Since they were found, FBISD has prioritized its construction timetables over memorialization efforts. We hope to see the resting place of the Sugar Land 95 honored by more than a ring of parking spaces. A list of seventy-two possible names, compiled by historian Sandra Roger over countless volunteer hours, suggests a path forward for reconnecting these 95 people with their identities.
While we hope that this report inspires scholarly transparency and collaboration on the Sugar Land 95 and the history of slavery and convict leasing in Fort Bend County, it contains a major error in one of its most important conclusions–the cemetery name.
We question the historical accuracy of this name and strongly believe that it obscures important moral lessons of the Sugar Land 95.
Are the Sugar Land 95 Buried at the Bullhead Camp Cemetery?
The resting site of the Sugar Land 95 is a place of great historical significance, but it “arrived” without a name. The current location of the Sugar Land 95 is approximately 12300 University Boulevard in Sugar Land, part of the Telfair planned community. This land was owned by L.A. Ellis until 1896, when it was transferred to his son C.G Ellis. In 1907, it was sold to Isaac H. Kempner and William T. Eldridge of the Imperial Sugar Company, who subsequently sold it to the state in 1908. While “Bullhead” was indeed the colloquial name of a prison labor camp near the Bullhead Bayou, the historical record is very clear that that camp and its cemetery are not the same as the site where the Sugar Land 95 were discovered.
FBISD has concluded that this camp was “named after its position along the Bullhead Bayou Creek,” a claim backed by a short section of testimony in the Report of the Penitentiary Investigation Committee presented to the Texas Legislature in the summer of 1910. That report contains nearly one thousand pages of investigative material related to brutal conditions in Texas prisons and on convict lease farms in the first decade of the 20th century. Among that voluminous record is testimony offered by former Sergeant R.J. Ritchie, who provided accounts of whippings he had performed and witnessed in 1907. Asked if he had seen burials of convicts in that time, Ritchie informed the Senate that “generally [there was] on each camp what is known as ‘convict graveyard.’” He had specific knowledge that “the Bullhead camp had a graveyard about three hundred yards from the camp in the corner of a pasture,” a fact he could testify to because he had dug graves there. From this snippet of testimony, it seems, FBISD concluded that the Sugar Land 95 site must have been the graveyard on the “Bullhead Camp” mentioned by Ritchie.
What the FBISD report overlooks is the very real possibility that more than one convict labor camp was located close enough to the historical course of Bullhead Bayou (or to some other “bullhead” feature) to earn that name. In other words, the Sugar Land 95 site was one cemetery alongside Bullhead Bayou, but was it necessarily the historical site Sergeant Richie referred to as “the Bullhead camp?” In short, no. The records of the Texas penitentiary system and press accounts provide strong evidence that the “Bullhead camp” was not the Sugar Land 95 site, but rather a different convict labor camp on a completely different plantation.
The FBISD report identifies various contract “labor forces” that worked near the Sugar Land 95 site. For much of the time it was in operation, that site was usually identified in state records and other accounts as Ellis Camp #1 or some other variant of the name “Ellis”—one of the primary beneficiaries of the convict lease program. This is perhaps the most historically accurate name for the Camp, and for the burial grounds of the Sugar Land 95.
The very evidence FBISD used to give the “Bullhead Camp” name to the Sugar Land 95 site in fact disproves that conclusion. Reading just a bit further into the testimony of Sergeant Ritchie reveals his detailed depictions of two 1907 whippings he described as having taken place “on the Cunningham place” and “at the Bullhead camp,” terms he used interchangeably. The Sugar Land 95 site is on land that had been part of the Ellis plantation. The Cunningham plantation was located to the east. It was on a distinct tract of land, with distinct owners, and with distinct labor camps filled with convicts under different leases. When Ritchie talked about the “Bullhead camp” and its cemetery, he was referring to a camp on the Cunningham plantation. This conclusion is further buttressed by the records of Ritchie’s employment on convict camps. He is listed as having worked at the Cunningham plantation (as well as other convict lease operations) but he is not listed as having worked on the Ellis plantation, home to the Sugar Land 95 site.
Locating the Real Bullhead Camp Cemetery
If the Bullhead Camp cemetery mentioned in the 1910 legislative investigation is not the plot in which the Sugar Land 95 were buried, then where was Bullhead Camp, and who was buried there? On that front, one thing is absolutely certain: the Bullhead camp was on the Cunningham plantation. Every time the name “Bullhead” appears in penitentiary system records and contemporary press accounts the camp is identified as being on Cunningham land. The "Bullhead" name, for example, is used by Sergeant J.E. Barnes in his 1909 state investigation testimony to describe a Cunningham camp. State records show Barnes was employed at Cunningham Camp No. 5 at the time. Another source establishing “Bullhead” as a Cunningham camp is an 1899 Houston Post account of flooding in Sugar Land, which made reference to “Cunningham’s Bullhead or No. 4 camp.”
Beyond the knowledge that the Bullhead camp was on the Cunningham plantation, it becomes a bit tougher to pin down its exact location. Like other plantations, the Cunningham operation had several active labor camps on it, each given a number that matched the number of the convict “force” that labored on it. The total number of camps, and their numerical designation, however, shifted over time, making it difficult to match records identifying camps by their numbers with particular geographies. But a few of the historical sources do provide descriptions of the Bullhead camp location. A November 13, 1909 article in the Austin Daily Statesman about the legislative probe into convict camp conditions described a visit to the Cunningham plantation, including a camp “commonly known as Bullhead” that was run by Sergeant J.E. Barnes. It was a site “low and muddy” with a “pool of stagnant scum-covered water covering about twelve acres a short distance away.” An earlier description from an 1893 State investigation describes a similar location, then known as “Camp No. 2,” that was “about one and a half miles below the refinery… immediately on the bank of Oyster Creek.” It was a sickly camp, resulting, the officials speculated, “from a long, stagnant lake of water very near the prison.” Water only ran through the lake when the creek was high, leaving it filled with refuse from the sugar refinery in dry times.
Based on these descriptions alone, it is difficult to fix the location of the historical Bullhead camp. The course of Oyster Creek has shifted some in the past century, and the stagnant lakes alongside it have been shaped by development. But following the course of Oyster Creek downstream for a mile and a half from the historical site of sugar operations would place the camp somewhere around the area where Interstate 69 crosses the creek. Nearby Brooks Lake would fit the description of the “stagnant scum-covered water” and “stagnant lake of water” in the historical descriptions of the camp. The area is also right by the spot where Bullhead Bayou fed into Oyster Creek. In modern times, this location is filled with medical and corporate offices, and homes selling for as much as a million dollars, potentially built on top of even more convict remains.
What’s in a Name?
Why, one might ask, does it matter so much if the Sugar Land 95 site was the historical “Bullhead Camp Cemetery?” In particular, the list of 72 “candidate” names for the remains at the Sugar Land 95 site loses none of its accuracy if the camp was called “Bullhead” in the past or not. But conveying the name “Bullhead Camp” on a convict labor camp that was historically known by some variant of “Ellis” is not a trivial matter.
This misnomer does not exist in a vacuum. It comes on the back of over a century of blunting, even glorifying, Sugar Land’s grim history. A five-minute drive from the Sugar Land 95 site are Ellis Creek Boulevard and Cunningham Creek Boulevard. Children play baseball at Cunningham Creek Field and swim at Ellis Creek Pool. After that, they might drive by a small cemetery—one of the few symbols of the incomprehensible terror and death inflicted by Ellis and others. And what they will see is a sign that says, “Bullhead Camp Cemetery,” as if it were the creek that is responsible for murders.
Our intention is not to shame these residents of Sugar Land. We are not asking them to stop enjoying their little league games or summertime swims. But there is blood in the fortunes of Cunningham, Ellis, and Sugar Land as a whole. Sugar Land is haunted by these lost souls, waiting to be found and to have their stories shared. It has been disrespectful enough to simply ignore it, to miss it due to not caring enough. But to find the flesh-and-bones evidence so that it cannot be ignored and then react by shielding the perpetrators is another, more active, form of disrespect and whitewashing.
There is another reason why it is valuable to care about the details of the camp’s name: it is a reminder of how much of the history of convict leasing in Fort Bend County remains unknown. The 1909 testimony of Sergeant Ritchie that formed the basis of FBISD’s name determination also contained his matter-of-fact declaration that there was “generally... on each camp what is known as a ‘convict graveyard.’” While the Sugar Land 95 site has been discovered, many more remain buried. The real Bullhead Camp Cemetery is likely buried under development, but there were at least a half dozen other active labor camps in the area during the convict lease era.
A recent comprehensive survey of the state conduct ledgers performed by one area historian (working independently of FBISD) has identified the names and other details of well more than 100 men who perished on the Cunningham plantation (and are perhaps buried somewhere in a Bullhead cemetery). In addition, the biennial reports of the state prison system from the late 19th and early 20th century establish that many more convicts died and were buried on other camps in Fort Bend County. While the bodies of these victims may never be found, their stories, like the stories of the Sugar Land 95, deserve to be told.
FBISD’s endorsement of the “Bullhead Camp Cemetery” name as the final resting place of the Sugar Land 95 perpetuates an inaccurate history that doesn’t include the names of Cunningham or Ellis, the primary perpetrators of Sugar Land’s bloody legacy of convict leasing. Their version of the history would also erase the lives of victims of the convict leasing system that, unlike the Sugar Land 95, remain buried beneath Sugar Land’s suburban development. These victims, like the Sugar Land 95, deserve recognition.
For decades the late Reginald Moore worked so that men who had been denied decency and humanity a century ago would not go forgotten, and that when their bodies were unearthed, they would be afforded respect and peace. He also believed that the Sugar Land 95 could help us tell a story that many would prefer to leave buried, but that must be heard if we are to build a future defined by justice. This story cannot be told through half-truths and misnomers that ultimately shield the perpetrators of Sugar Land’s bloody past.