Blood Memory: “The 95,” Once Voiceless, Speak Sugar Land’s Convict Leasing Past

Laura Eldridge Memorial Hospital which opened in 1957 and closed by the late 70s on Eldridge Road, Sugar Land Heritage Foundation

If you grew up in Sugarland in the 1980s and 1990s like I did, you realize early on that it is a layered place, a palimpsest. There is more than meets the eye than the strip malls, fast food restaurants, and car dealerships. Beneath the tollway exits, master planned communities, and mixed-use developments are blood-stained ground. I remember when the sugar refinery was in operation, the entire prison was fully operational, and you could see the prisoners from the road, toiling in the fields off Highway 90. There are new homes and schools within a stone’s throw of some of those fields today.

Sugar Land is a “familiar,” and some of the first research I conducted as a doctoral student began there. These bodies, this space, and this history is also very personal, as I was born in the company hospital behind the sugar refinery and have at least one ancestor who was a convict leasing victim. Originally Imperial Sugar-owned plantation land, convict leasing farms emerged in 1909, and evolved into the prison farm — the original prison industrial complex.

I’m reminded of that blood-stained ground when I return home to visit my mother in nearby Missouri City. She and my father’s relatives who grew up in the County (we go back to the 1830s in the area though most people think it just became civilized 50 years ago) have shared stories of the scattered black bodies beneath local suburban developments with me since I was a child. Once anchoring all-Black settlements or “pockets” called freedom colonies, these cemeteries became casualties of Houston sprawl as developers discovered the ease with which they could dismantle old slave cabins and pave marshland.

Listening to these stories shaped my current quest to document every single freedom colony in Texas, founded between 1865–1930. Often memories and stories, a few homesteads, and a cemetery are all that remain of once prosperous communities that insulated African Americans from the racial terror and outrages of whites resentful of freedmen’s modest gains after Emancipation. The remaining descendants of freedom colony founders are our last bridge to Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era Black life in Texas.

Rampant development over the last fifty years has erased many of the freedom colonies surrounding Sugar Land. With little to no regulatory constraints and even less oversight, affordable homes in subdivisions named after former plantation owners attracted working-class African Americans and middle-class whites from Houston. From the mid-70s to the present, Sugar Land, as well as much of Fort Bend, has been a magnet for those who cannot afford to live in the loop or want the same “room” they were able to grow up playing in as children.

Reginald Moore

Discovery of Bodies No Accident.

The veneer of this sublime, suburban landscape seems to have amplified the shock of the recent discovery of formerly incarcerated men and women. However, considering the county’s past as the epicenter of sugar production and slavery (1 in 4 residents were African American in 1860), it should not be unusual to find some remnants of this imperial past.

As is common knowledge among historians and social scientists, Fort Bend and Harris County’s wealth is inextricably linked to chattel slavery and convict leasing. However, this not a history that has been visible as it is now. Due to the recent discovery of 95 graves at a school construction site, the exploitation of African Americans post-emancipation in Texas is exposed for all the world to see. This wasn’t a truth Sugar Land wanted to come out, at least not in this way.

Reginald Moore became obsessed with documenting what he found when researching the County’s past slave and convict leasing past. A former prison corrections officer at the nearby Harlem Unit, Moore has led a 20-year fight to force public officials to face Fort Bend County‘s bloody history. During the fight, Moore learned to strategically insert himself into legal processes which enabled him to interrupt development on behalf of the voiceless, the dead formerly enslaved and imprisoned.

Leveraging Existing Regulations

Like Moore, it is vitally important that the public become aware of the legal framework and processes associated with the discovery of burials during projects receiving government funding. In addition to compliance with Chapter 711 of the Texas Health and Safety Code and the THC Antiquities Permit #8197 the district attained, there are ongoing engagement and communication requirements vital to making sure this process reflects the wishes of those impacted in the past and future. While they also have to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA); Archeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 (AHPA)
 Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA); and the state health code, there is something a little more complicated than compliance required when a discovery of this magnitude occurs. While the “is” are dotted, and “ts” supposedly crossed, there is a more specific issue related to Black burial discovery to be noted here.

Federal law requires that funding recipients consult with descendants and interested parties to ensure artifacts and graves aren’t just “moved” once discovered. Consultation is a legal term of art in cultural resources management and is key to understanding what recipients of federal funds are required to do under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, one of the codes. The law requires that federally funded projects “ take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties and to provide the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) with a reasonable opportunity to comment.” This process also includes a documented effort to consult with those who are impacted, whether they be residents, advocacy groups, or descendants of those interred at this school construction site. Moreover, while there is even more specific oversight for Native American burial sites including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), African American burial sites remain in limbo or an issue of “relocation” in the face of development and construction.

However, some archaeologists, especially those with a specialty in African Diasporic archeology call for a shift in our thinking about “Black “ burial sites, and it is pertinent to what we see in Sugar Land. For example, in 1991, the African Burial Ground, now a national monument, in New York City was discovered during construction of a federal building. Those bodies were uncovered during a cultural resources survey conducted during pre-construction of a new General Services Administration Building in lower Manhattan. 15,000 intact free and enslaved Africans were found buried in a 6.6-acre area. They were just outside the boundary of a forgotten Black settlement in what was then called New Amsterdam. Those archaeologists conferred with the broadly conceived descendant community and reinterred them — on the same spot. The same push can occur through not just protest but asserting and invoking the state and national codes and interrupting these processes with questions and comments.

I was prompted to give the civics lesson after reading an especially alarming section of the Washington Post article on the discovery of 95 bodies in Sugar Land,

“The graves were found, really, by accident. The local Fort Bend Independent School District began construction on a new school at the former prison site in October, deciding to hire an archaeologist to supervise the work after Moore’s warnings of the possible burial grounds, a spokeswoman said. In February, a backhoe operator happened to see something jutting out of the dirt. He thought it was a human bone.”

Moore has requested earnest consultation and recognition for decades.

When a community member, advocate, and local historian instructs you to begin an archaeological dig, that individual doesn’t assert themselves in the process “by accident.” This is all part of a legal consultation process mandated by federal law. Consultation means listening to those elders in our communities who very literally know where all the bodies are buried. If they are not consulted, and their “comment” considered seriously, then legal suit can be brought.

What Can Be Done*

Legal suits are of course expensive and arduous. What is more useful is calling FBISD, encouraging them to continue the excavation as long as possible, involve descendant communities, and to initiate a new site selection and location process for the school. Tell them you don’t want any of your tax dollars funding any project which would allow building within a quarter mile (or other reasonable distance) from the site AND to make that report public once completed.

Much like federal investigations, archaeological excavations take a very long time. Ideally, such discoveries should give us pause, leading the public to contemplate where there may be other unmarked graves throughout the County. There are (according to the elders, relatives, and personal knowledge) bodies beneath almost every one of those suburban homes on the western end of Ft. Bend County. Moreover, I know too many people who live there who wouldn’t consider moving anywhere else. So, let’s think carefully about what WE are willing to disrupt to deal fundamentally with the black bodies that keep our tollways and house foundations level, shall we? I hope to have more soon, on what solutions on a statewide scale look like.

*Progress in the case of these bodies. The plan is for

Imperial Sugar Refinery, Sugar Land, Texas, Photo by Author

I speak and lecture to students about similar collisions between development, planning, & African American social and economic capital throughout the state and the country. I do so to raise awareness about the breadth and width of this problem, and I am working on several related writings, which takes time. This work is not a hobby. I sleep and eat it, because it matters, its my blood, and its my job. And I write not just to reflect, but to influence and change our relationship to our ancestral grounds in a systematic way, from the root. That is the long form work I do as a scholar.

Graves at FBISD school construction site, Washington Post, July 2018

I write this not only hoping to reflect the acumen of a “scholar”, but also with a sense of accountability to these human beings discarded like trash after their useful life no longer served local landowners, companies, and the State. This story awakens the blood memory. August Wilson explains blood memory this way,

“When your back is pressed to the wall you go to the deepest part of yourself, and there’s a response–It’s your great ancestors talking. It’s blood memory.”

I listen to my sources, read my regulations, study in the archives, and I listen to the blood memory.

I welcome speaking requests, and I hope you read the rest of my work on endangered Black heritage and places. But more importantly, respect our elders’ memories and their words. Respect the work of Reginald Moore. Listen when they tell you where your people are buried, the names of the communities they founded, and the violence they survived. Listen to their calls to turn the dirt and mind the memory, because what they know, didn’t come to them “by accident.”

These 95 human beings’ pain and exploitation, assumed criminality, it all seems to go right through me. It is tangible. The reposts of the story of these 95 lives invoke the same horror as those close ups on police murders of African Americans, soon followed by Black Lives Matters protests. These bodies are as fresh to me as those we see breathing one minute, and gunned down the next. We need more than Black death porn. Letting people know that consultation is a statutory requirement and not an ancillary aspect of compliance is one way to surpass reaction and instead learn, listen, and act on blood memory.