Unearthing Truth: Sugar Land’s Past and Future

By Special Contributor posted 03-06-2019 14:09


By Hanna Kim

An affluent suburb of Houston, Sugar Land is lauded for its ethnic diversity, educated workforce, beautiful neighborhoods, excellent schools, and handsome town center. Recent events, however, have exposed a disturbing history, creating national and even international headlines and spurring lawsuits, emergency board meetings, and public demonstrations

In 2017 Sugar Land’s Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) announced plans for a state-of-the-art technology center on a former state prison property. But site preparation stopped in February 2018 with the discovery of human bones during excavation. After months of work, forensic anthropologists from the Texas Historical Commission had exhumed the remains of 95 bodies.

A USGS map of Sugar Land in 1915 (left) and an aerial map view of the FBISD construction site (right). | Credit: Left: Center for American History, University of Texas; Right: Google Maps

Forensic analysis determined that the remains, which have come to be known as the “Sugar Land 95,” are those of African American people who died between 1878 and 1910. They ranged in age from 14 to 70 and all but one were male. Chains and bricks found alongside the bones provide evidence of the horrific conditions in which these people lived and died, and being buried far from the prison’s known cemetery—which “is mostly white men”—suggests that they were segregated by race in death as well as in life.

Stories like this bring the past back to life, forcing us to reckon with their implications. 

Sugar Land’s History

Despite its sweet name, Sugar Land has a tortured past. In 1823 pioneer Texan Stephen F. Austin acquired Fort Bend County through a Mexican land grant. The settlers massacred the native Karankawa people to control the fertile floodplain of the Brazos River. Austin brought slavery to his community, distributing land proportionate to the number of enslaved people each family owned—enslaving more people brought more wealth. Until the Civil War, those families used sugar plantations to continue growing that wealth. But following emancipation, the “Sugar Bowl of Texas” went bankrupt. 

After abolition, however, slavery was replaced by convict labor, “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” In 1878 Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis, Confederate veterans turned business partners, purchased one of the last remaining sugar plantations, which they would eventually transform into the Imperial Sugar Company. The partners “borrowed” the entire state prison population for their business, and the Imperial State Prison Farm became the “hellhole on the Brazos.” While it was renamed the Central State Prison Farm in 1930, it operated continuously from 1909 until 2011.

1903 photograph of orphaned and “criminal” children exploited through convict leasing. | Credit: Image is in the public domain

Following Sugar Land’s incorporation as a city in 1959, skilled immigrants poured in to fuel Houston’s booming energy industry. In the boomtown, the tragic history of convict leasing remained invisible. Institutions such as the Texas Historical Commission, Fort Bend Historical Commission, and Sugar Land Heritage Foundation perpetuated a hegemonic narrative of Sugar Land and the Austin family, erasing the African American history. That narrative has proven persistent: an equestrian monument to Stephen F. Austin—“Father of Texas”—went up in the Sugar Land town square in 2001. And in 2017, Sugar Land city manager Allen Bogard claimed that “there’s not a single facility, road, nor improvement that exists today in the city of Sugar Land that can be traced back to either the convict-lease program or slavery.” As Ida B. Wells wrote in 1893, “Those who commit the murders write the reports.” Sanitizing historical narratives transforms the cultural identities of places. How then, has writing massacre, enslavement, and convict leasing out of Sugar Land’s history changed it? And how can discoveries like the Sugar Land 95 awaken us to the truth? 

Sugar Land Today and Tomorrow

Reginald Moore, a founder of the Texas Slave Descendants’ Society and the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, has dedicated his life to preserving the tragic history of Sugar Land. A self-described community activist, Moore has spent decades researching and uncovering the real history, and he had been warning FBISD for years about the likelihood of unearthing convict leasing sites. Moore’s research is now in the archives at Rice University, his life’s work preserved and available for all to study. 

The Sugar Land 95, meanwhile, are in a storage pod near the site where they had rested for a century. How should they now be memorialized? Simply reburying the remains in the main cemetery would be another sanitized history, concealing the story of their exclusion. Can Sugar Land confront its painful past in a way that prioritizes justice, equity, and reconciliation?

Across the nation, similarly incomplete heritage narratives have erased the history of African Americans and other underrepresented groups—but there are also many efforts to bring the truth to light. Around the same time the remains were being discovered in Sugar Land, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened its doors in Montgomery, Alabama, on a six-acre site that once served as the heart of the domestic slave trade. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the public interest law firm that designed and established the memorial, is housed nearby in a building that once served as a warehouse for the enslaved. The work of EJI can serve as a model for decisions made regarding the convict leasing burial site in Sugar Land. 

In August 2018, Bogard established a task force to “make recommendations on the interment and reburial” of the Sugar Land 95. In November, after the task force had voted overwhelmingly to rebury the remains where they were found, FBISD sought court permission to move them. The judge denied that request and appointed a special officer to oversee the case, which also met with objection from FBISD. The court denied that objection as well, and after FBISD appealed again, the district convened a new advisory council. 

Poster for an event on Monday, March 11, that will address the history of the Imperial State Prison Farm and the current struggle to honor and memorialize the lives and deaths of the Sugar Land 95 (full panel is embedded below). Learn more.

On December 16, city officials, including Fort Bend County Judge K. P. George, stood in solidarity with community members grieving for the Sugar Land 95 at a vigil in the Sugar Land town square. But in January 2019, FBISD superintendent Charles Dupre told the advisory council that the district still intended to secure court permission to move the bodies and build on top of the burial site. The prospects for honoring the deceased seemed grim, but activists pushed on and things began to change.

On February 12 the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to negotiate an interlocal agreement to buy the site from FBISD. The following week, after appeals from U.S. Congressman Al Green, district attorney Brian Middleton, and other elected officials, the board finally voted 6-0 to drop all legal actions and start negotiating with Fort Bend County to sell the site. 

These developments, which bring renewed hope for a memorial to honor the victims of convict leasing in Sugar Land, are the result of a long and arduous fight against the whitewashing of history. The leaders and community in Sugar Land, as well as other Americans facing the country’s difficult past, would do well to keep in mind Maya Angelou’s words: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Hanna Kim
is an artist and designer focused on the intersection of art, policy, and social justice. She has collaborated with nonprofits including the Center for Urban Pedagogy and the Equal Justice Initiative and is completing a master’s in design studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This post is adapted and updated from her previous article about Sugar Land.