Who were the
Sugar Land 95?
The first bone was found in February 2018, by a backhoe operator clawing through the dirt on land owned by the Fort Bend Independent School District. By the summer, the remains of 94 men and one woman, all African-American victims of convict leasing, had been recovered on the future site of a career and technical education center. Ranging in age from 14 to 70, the inmates had muscular builds but were malnourished, their bones misshapen from back-breaking, repetitive labor. They were buried in plain pine boxes sometime between 1878 and 1911.
CLLP has been at the forefront of the fight to preserve the Sugar Land 95's burial ground and ensure they are properly memorialized.
THE SUGAR LAND 95
The Sugar Land 95 are the 95 African-American individuals unearthed during a construction in Sugar Land, Texas, 30 miles southwest of Houston. Archaeologists found evidence that the 95 individuals belonged to the state of Texas' convict leasing system and were buried in the unmarked gravesite.
Construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center began. During site preparation, the Texas Historical Commission (THC) contacted Fort Bend Independent School District, and the District retained archaeologists from Goshawk Environmental Consulting to search for potential archaeological artifacts.
A backhoe operator found two bones during construction. Analysis confirmed they were human. Charles Dupre, Fort Bend ISD Superintendent, notified Reginald Moore by phone.
As Fort Bend ISD and THC announced the discovery of the historic cemetery, exploratory work continued. Over the next months, the perimeter was established. Construction continued in areas not affected by archaeological work. Over the month, the count of discovered graves reached 30, then 79, then 89. By July it reached 95.
Fort Bend ISD, THC, and Goshawk Environmental Consulting spoke to the media about ongoing exhumation and forensic analysis. They announced that in their judgement, the 95 bodies were those of inmates in the convict leasing system. All of the remains indicated African American traits and hard, repetitive labor. Artifacts such as a brick, a ring, chains were found within the burial site.
Fort Bend ISD and the City of Sugar Land entered into a memorandum of understanding, in which they agreed to cooperate regarding future reinterment at the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery. At this point, Fort Bend ISD planned to construct the still-unbuilt portion of James Reese Career and Technical Center, after the remains had been removed and reburied at another site.
Fort Bend ISD petitioned the 434th District Court for permission for reinterment at the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. Judge Shoemake delayed the decision and appointed a Master in Chancery to assist with the case, Michael W. Elliott. Reginald Moore held a candlelight vigil in Sugar Land Town Square.
Fort Bend County Historical Commission voted unanimously to support preserving the gravesites. Fort Bend County Commissioners Court and the Fort Bend ISD school board voted unanimously to begin negotiating a deal allowing the county to buy the land containing the gravesites and create a cemetery and memorial.
Fort Bend County Commissioners Court passed a resolution asking the Texas Legislature to permit Fort Bend County to operate historic cemeteries. The Texas Health and Safety Code allows only small rural counties with a population of 8,200 or fewer to own and run cemeteries. Fort Bend County’s population is over 811,000. The idea becomes the proposed Texas House Bill 4179.
Fort Bend ISD withdrew its offer to pay Fort Bend County $1 million, stating that it would reinter the remains and hold a public memorial service, and so the county would incur no such costs. 434th District Court Judge James Shoemake appointed Scott West as attorney to represent the unknown heirs of the Sugar Land 95. Fort Bend ISD appealed that decision, and the First Court of Appeals in Houston upheld that appeal, staying Judge Shoemake’s order that had appointed West. Meanwhile, community activists alleged that Fort Bend ISD’s construction activities had already altered the burial site. Fort Bend ISD denied this.
Fort Bend ISD held a ceremony called “Blessing the Ground” on November 17th and hosted a community symposium on November 21st at the newly completed James Reese Career and Technical Center, where archaeologists, historians, and geneticists shared extensive information about the Sugar Land 95 with the public. On November 27, on the eve of Thanksgiving Day, the remains of the Sugar Land 95 were reinterred by Fort Bend ISD. The site, originally called “Ellis Camp No. 1,” has been was renamed. The new name is unrelated the history of convict leasing. Reginald Moore condemns the decision as an effort to whitewash once again the tortured history tied to this site.
Presentation from the community symposium on November 21, 2019.
At the time of the writing, Fort Bend ISD continues to own and operate this cemetery unilaterally. There is no historical marker or other information at the site that tells the history of what happened there.
The Fort Bend Independent School District released a 500-page report on the discovery of the Sugar Land 95. The report, which was prepared under the guidance of Goshawk Environmental Consultants, INC, Fort Bend ISD, and various contributors, includes forensic analysis to shine a light on the possible living conditions and causes of death of the Sugar Land 95. The report claims that the remains of the Sugar Land 95 are located at "Bullhead Camp Cemetery." We believe that this is historically incorrect and furthers the damage by whitewashing the men who benefitted from the convict leasing system: Ed H. Cunningham and L.A. Ellis.
IT IS NOT OVER.
Fort Bend Independent School District owns the site. Fort Bend County wished to acquire the site to operate it as a cemetery, and a Texas state law was even amended to permit large counties to own and run cemeteries, but the district backed out of the arrangement. Since then it has refused to cooperate with the county, court-appointed oversight of the reinterment (which it successfully appealed), and the community task force it had once helped convene. The district continues to make unilateral decisions about the remains.
There is no historical marker at the site, or any indication of what happened there. Join our movement to tell the full history. Contact us to learn how you can get involved!