Driving home on the night of April 4, 2018, Sam Collins was full of energy as he and his wife discussed a historical preservation project he wanted to take on. At a dinner that evening, an amateur historian named Reginald Moore had approached Collins—who works as a financial adviser in the small southeast Texas town of Hitchcock—about what academics call “convict leasing.”
The practice—in which state governments leased prisoners, often black and in jail on trumped-up charges, to work for private individuals or companies—flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Researchers say the for-profit system virtually enslaved tens of thousands of Texans. Many of them were literally worked to death in the state’s sugarcane fields.
Moore, a former prison guard with a longstanding interest in convict leasing, had been convinced for several years that people enslaved under the system were buried in unmarked graves on the farms where they were worked to death. Through research, Moore determined that some farms were located in the present-day city of Sugar Land.
The city, with a population of roughly 118,000, sits about 40 miles northwest of Hitchcock, in the rich floodplains of the Brazos River, 20 miles southwest of downtown Houston. Sugar Land is the largest municipality in Fort Bend County, the most racially diverse county in the country according to a report from Rice University. (The county is almost equally divided between black, white, Asian, and Latinx residents.) Moore had spent more than two decades trying to get the city to commemorate the victims of convict leasing, but to little avail. Moore told Collins that the city staff didn’t seem to believe his claim that victims of such a brutal and racist system were buried in unmarked graves in the city. “[They] didn’t want to own up to this history,” Moore said.
In February 2018, as the Fort Bend Independent School District was ramping up construction of a career and technical education center in Sugar Land, a backhoe operator noticed a human bone sticking out of the ground. During the next few months, the remains of 95 people—experts later exhumed them and determined they most likely belonged to black convict leasing victims—would be found. Moore knew the discovery was important, and he figured Collins would be the perfect person to help make sure the remains were appropriately memorialized.
Collins, who is black, had been a history buff since his student days at Texas A&M University. In his late thirties, Collins bought and rehabilitated a dilapidated two-story Queen Anne-style home which had been owned by a prominent Confederate veteran in Hitchcock. After the project was underway, Collins was invited to serve on the boards of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Texas Historical Commission, and the Galveston Historical Foundation.
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The fight over what to do with the remains pitted Moore and Collins—who felt that the site was sacred ground and that the victims should be reinterred there—with staff from the Fort Bend Independent School District and the city of Sugar Land. After the bodies were exhumed, school district staff said that they lacked the legal standing and expertise needed to manage a cemetery on district property. They initially argued that reburying the remains at a city-maintained graveyard about a half-mile away, the Imperial Farm Cemetery, would expedite the construction of the career and technical education center, could save millions of dollars, and would be more appropriate than reburying the bones so close to a building that they insist will be completed by August.
But then, something surprising happened. After nearly a year of argument—and a growing mobilization by people who wanted to keep the bodies where they were found—the school board suddenly gave in. Now, it seems, the battle will be over just how to honor the unknown victims of this terrible system and to turn their mass grave into something worthier and more dignified.
Throughout the process, the debate ignited protests and stirred passionate arguments—about what is owed to the African-Americans who suffered what some historians call a fate worse than slavery, and about how far the school district and city of Sugar Land should go to memorialize the victims of a system whose legacy, Collins said, resonates today in the criminalization of black people.
“This is a wound that a lot of people would rather not discuss, but it is part of our history that led to the racial situation we find ourselves in today,” Collins told me. “Memorializing these victims at the site where they were buried would show that we are serious about addressing racism.”
In April 2018, the school district formally announced it had uncovered a cemetery at the future site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center, a planned 200,000-square-foot facility which is supposed to offer a wide variety of vocational courses to students. In accordance with state regulations, the school district petitioned a district court judge in Fort Bend County for permission to exhume the remains and have bio-archeologists study them.
The judge granted permission in June 2018, and shortly thereafter researchers determined the bones most likely belonged to black men (and one woman) who ranged in age from 14 to 70 years old when they died. The bones carried the signs of malnutrition, backbreaking labor, and the beatings convicts endured on sugar plantations that lined the lower Brazos River at the turn of the 20th century.
The warm, fertile lowlands of southeast Texas are well suited for growing sugarcane. The crop is extremely labor intensive; it has a narrow harvesting window and has to be processed within a matter of hours or it can go bad. In the mid-1800s, plantation owners could relentlessly work their slaves during harvests, but after emancipation they needed another source of labor. They turned to convict leasing. The scheme wasn’t unique to Texas, but the Lone Star State had the largest system in the nation, according to historian Robert Perkinson’s book, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. Perkinson calls convict leasing “the most corrupt and murderous penal regime in American history.”
In his memoir 25 Years Behind Bars, Bill Mills, who spent time laboring as a convict on the Imperial Prison Farm in Sugar Land as the practice of leasing convicts was giving way to state-run prison farms, describes convicts toiling in southeast Texas’ oppressive heat from dawn to dusk. Mills was convicted of horse theft and imprisoned in 1910. (Convict leasing officially ended in Texas in 1914, according to the Texas State Historical Association.)
The majority of convicts were black, and Mills, a white prisoner, likely didn’t suffer the worst abuses of the system. But the brutality he witnessed was palpable. He describes workers being bullwhipped as they worked in the fields. “Nobody,” he writes, “was relieved until he dropped in his tracks. The guards often said the men did not cost them any money and the mules did. That’s why there was more sympathy for the mules than for the men.”
A statement from the Texas State Convention of Colored Men in 1883 describes the work camp conditions in these terms: “When a fresh convict is carried to the farms, he is taken down by the other convicts and beaten, at command of the guard … in a few days he is hauled out of his sick quarters and put to work … In many cases sick convicts are made to toil until they drop dead in their tracks.”
Sugar Land native and Texas A&M University Professor Andrea Roberts, an expert in the preservation of historical African-American sites, told me her black ancestors date back several generations in Fort Bend County (she thinks she has at least one ancestor who was a convict leasing victim). Roberts said the mass grave could qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and that the school district and city should have halted construction on the Reese center and sought input from the “diaspora of people impacted by this” as soon as the bodies were unearthed.
In August, the city did create a community task force to offer advice on what to do with the remains. The task force comprised 20 members, including Collins, Moore, and Fort Bend Independent School District Chief Communications Officer Veronica Sopher. During a meeting on Oct. 17, the task force voted 19-1 in a non-binding vote to rebury the remains at the site where they were found. Sopher was the lone nay vote.
The district had to consider what’s best for the entire community, Sopher told me when we met at a historical preservation conference in January in Austin. The career and technical education center—which will offer vocational classes to local high school students— will “absolutely” be finished by August, she added, and it was the district’s position that the courtyard of a school simply wasn’t the place for a memorial.
“A school courtyard where students are running, buses are flowing probably isn’t the ideal place, and just several hundred yards away there could be a dedicated space,” she said.
The insistence that construction continue is insensitive to the cultural and political significance of the discovery, Roberts said. She pointed to the African Burial Ground in New York City as an example of what could happen in Sugar Land.
The federal government, during construction of a building in Lower Manhattan in 1991, uncovered the remains of hundreds of Africans. The government initially said construction would continue and the bodies would be moved elsewhere, but after receiving intense pushback from black community members, the government changed course and agreed to rebury the bodies where they were found. Then-President George W. Bush declared the site a national monument in 2006, and today a monument, visitor’s center, museum, and exhibit space occupy the site.
“This is a deal of national and international import,” Roberts said in reference to the unearthed human remains in Sugar Land, “and the city and the school district lack the historical understanding and context to fully recognize it.”
“The school district’s position tells the community that these old black bodies simply don’t matter as much as their desire to put the school on that spot,” Roberts added.
On the evening of Oct. 23, Collins straightened his tie as he sat down next to Moore and the two men waited to discuss the fate of what had come to be known as the Sugar Land 95 with the Sugar Land City Council. The council had no black members, but Collins had had several respectful interactions with city staff in the preceding months, and he expected a calm gathering. Yet when Mayor Joe Zimmerman started the meeting, Collins heard a harshness in the mayor’s voice that gave him pause.
Zimmerman addressed the crowd of about two dozen people. “It is important for this city council that we have people get to speak, but it’s also important that we have order,” he said.
“If we have to we’ll clear the room,” he added.
Collins had attended similar meetings, and he couldn’t remember one that started with such a warning. Collins and Moore were passionate, but there was no need to threaten to clear the room. At the very least, the mayor’s warning came off as disrespectful, Collins thought. (Zimmerman did not return requests for comment.)
After the warning, Zimmerman called Collins to a podium to address the council. “The task force voted to leave the bodies at the site if at all possible,” Collins said, making sure to speak as calmly as possible. “I want the City Council to take seriously the advice that we have tried to give.”
After Collins spoke, Moore addressed the council and reiterated the points his friend had made. Then, Assistant Sugar Land City Manager Doug Brinkley spoke. Brinkley acknowledged the task force’s recommendation that the remains be reburied at the site where they were found, but keeping the bodies in the mass grave where they had been buried for more than a century was too tall a task for the school district, he said.
“They are not experts in the care and perpetual care of cemeteries,” Brinkley said, “and number two they are primarily an educational institution.”
Collins had heard this argument before, and it seemed disingenuous to him. He had told city and school district staff that a memorial would serve primarily as an educational tool, a testimonial to an underappreciated racial past.
After Brinkley spoke, Fort Bend Independent School District Board President Jason Burdine addressed the council. Burdine emphasized that the district was committed to treating the remains with respect, and the “appropriate reburial location is the adjacent old Imperial Farm Cemetery.”
“Respect comes in many forms,” Burdine said. “We understand that some of the members of the task force prefer to reinter the bodies at the James Reese Center on the Fort Bend ISD site. However, as a public school district we are charged with educating children and the feasibility of becoming a perpetual care organization is beyond our expertise.”
Collins didn’t quite understand what Burdine meant when he said “respect comes in many forms,” but he did know that members of the task force felt disrespected.
The council voted 6-0 to move the remains to the Sugar Land Imperial Farm Cemetery.
These people don’t fully understand the message this sends to black people, Collins thought.
Following the council’s vote, the school district asked that District Court Judge James Shoemake grant a petition that would allow the bodies to be reinterred at the Imperial Farm Cemetery. On Nov. 19, the judge temporarily blocked the reburial, tentatively setting a March deadline to make a final decision.
“I’m not going to give that permission until I’m convinced we’ve given a good try for all who are concerned to achieve the goals they’d like to see achieved,” Shoemake said.
Since then, though, things have changed. A movement developed in support of the Sugar Land 95, and it appears to have won.
On the morning of Jan. 17, Collins and Moore visited the Texas Capitol in Austin. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, honored the men with certificates of appreciation for their efforts to commemorate the Sugar Land 95.
“It was an honor to be given the recognition on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Collins said as we walked to Thierry’s Capitol office. “It showed we’re making progress.”
Thierry represents an electoral district South of Houston, about 7 miles from Sugar Land. Her office is chockablock with portraits of prominent civil rights leaders.
As soon as she learned about the discovery of the remains, she wanted to get involved, Thierry told me in her office. The representative, who is black and grew up in Southeast Texas, didn’t know the history of convict leasing until she took a history course at Howard University.
“When you look at the extent to which we have gone to memorialize the Confederacy, and then you look at how we treat historical African-American sites, there’s a disparity,” Thierry said. “This is not new for black people, we’re used to getting the short end of the stick, but it is time for it to change.”
After Thierry honored Collins and Moore at the Texas Capitol, the movement to memorialize the Sugar Land 95 at the site where they were uncovered started picking up steam. On Jan. 21, several dozen people rallied at the Fort Bend County Courthouse in opposition to the school district’s plan to move the remains. The same day, more than 50 people, including a state representative, a member of Thierry’s staff, and Fort Bend County Commissioner Ken DeMerchant, attended an event honoring the 95 convict leasing victims at an American Legion Hall in Sugar Land. Several attendees told me that residents were increasingly learning about the situation and want to get involved.
Historians have also intervened; at least 227 signed an open letter urging local officials to “make choices that acknowledge the national significance of this discovery.” The Fort Bend County Historical Commission voted 43-0 on February 12 to oppose the moving of the bodies.”
After that, things moved quickly. During another meeting on February 12, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court voted to try and negotiate a deal with school district staff in an effort to keep the remains where they were found. At the time, Commissioner Ken DeMerchant told me the county is willing to purchase the gravesite and build a memorial there.
On February 18, U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, and several local elected officials joined Collins and Moore at a school district board meeting. They urged the district to keep the bodies where they were found.
On February 21, the school district officially changed its position regarding the reburial location. The district released a statement that read, in part: “Fort Bend ISD agrees that the Sugar Land 95 need to be memorialized at the site of discovery ... the District will halt all further court action while we explore all available options.”
When I asked school district spokesperson Veronica Sopher what prompted the sudden about-face, she responded,“The opportunity to work with the county and their desire to step forward to find a legal way to operate a cemetery.”
Collins is convinced that something else forced the school district’s hand—an increasingly organized and outspoken group of community members and elected officials. “It took a community outcry, but the school district is finally doing the right thing,” Collins said.
On the day Collins and I visited Thierry, we toured the Capitol grounds. During our walk, Collins stopped in front of a 25-foot tall, multi-ton granite monument. It’s one of the first things a visitor sees entering the grounds through the southern gates. A seven-and-a-half-foot tall statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis sits atop the monument, which was erected in 1903. Davis is surrounded by four Confederate fighters.
Collins read aloud the inscription etched in the base of the monument: “died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The people of the South,” Collins continued, “animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861.”
“When they say state’s rights, the only right they mean is the right to own black individuals,” Collins said. “The state of Texas officially memorializes this distorted view of history. In Sugar Land, we are trying to educate people about the real history of the region and of Texas. This is an unsweet story that needs to be told.”
John Savage is a journalist based in Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter.