Teaching lessons on race relations from the grave

The discovery of what became known as "The Sugar Land 95" is shining light on a part of the past that until recently couldn’t be found in history books. Now, even in death, dozens are playing a role in erasing the hate.

It’s remarkable what’s being taught at a school in Fort Bend County and actually for this lesson we go just past the building, beyond the grave.

"We have put up a perimeter fence to really give an accurate account of the shape, size and the scale of the cemetery," explains Fort Bend ISD Community and Civic Engagement Coordinator Chassidy Olainu-Alade.

What's now a cemetery was once not much more than a field for the seemingly forgotten.

"It literally essentially was a dumping space," adds Olainu-Alade.

A construction worker helping build Fort Bend ISD’s Reese Career and Technical Center in 2018 unearthed human remains, leading to the discovery of 94 black men and the leg bone of a black woman, now known as The Sugar Land 95.

"They are believed to be a part of the convict leasing system that took place in Texas between 1872 and 1911. At that time, it was common for the state prison system to lease out convicts to companies and to individuals as well," explains Dr. Helen Graham, an HCC Professor and Chair of Humanities, Philosophy & Library Sciences.


Graham is also the Lead Genealogy Specialist on the Sugar Land 95 Project, working along with Dr. Theresa Jach, an HCC History Professor and Researcher on the Sugar Land 95 Project.

"Ellis and Cunningham, who started Imperial Sugar basically, they leased the entire prison for a time," adds Dr. Jach. "That system was created to counter legislation that allowed African Americans to be equal and free citizens," says Olainu-Alade. 

As historians tell it, convict leasing was continued slavery under a different name because free labor was still in high demand.

"They’d convict them of crimes that they had created in many cases to criminalize Black behavior," explains Jach. "For instance, if they were talking too loud, if they did not move off the sidewalk when a white woman was passing by, if they were convicted of vagrancy," says Graham.

"If you were Black and you weren’t in agricultural work, they could still arrest you for vagrancy even if you were in another line of work. So many people have no idea this was happening, no idea the city of Sugar Land was built on this type of work," adds Dr. Jach.

"Through archival research, we’ve been able to identify 74 individuals who died at that (convict leasing) camp," explains Dr. Graham.  

COVID-19 has slowed already laborious DNA analysis to match names to the remains. In the meantime, headstones marked "unknown" identify each grave.

"They needed to be reinterred back into their resting places and given a proper burial. So in 2019, we held a blessing of the ground ceremony," says Olainu-Alade. 

A team of researchers is making sure this history is no longer left out. Last spring, it was added to African American Studies courses.

"So now students across the state of Texas will not only learn about convict leasing, but they’ll learn specifically about the Sugar Land 95," explains Olainu-Alade. 

Those working on the project say the history of Blacks going from slavery, to many wrongfully funneled into prison, to be leased out, plays a huge role in present day perception.

"So you have this flood of African Americans suddenly subjected to the criminal justice system and then you have these laws designed to criminalize their behavior, because you want their labor and so when you start to see more and more Black men and women being arrested, then the public perception is Blacks as a group are more prone to criminal behavior," explains Jach.


"When I tell this story, it’s almost as though you see light bulbs going off," adds Olainu-Alade.

"That shapes everything, right? It colors the way law enforcement looks at them. It colors the way people (see Blacks), oh I don’t want to live by them because they’re criminals," explains Dr. Jach. 

"We want to make sure we restore the humanity and dignity of those individuals who we know literally labored to death on that land," says Olainu-Alade.

In February, the state that once disregarded them as property, has now designated their burial ground as a historic cemetery.

Although, if you go there to the site, you may not know it’s historic. There are a couple of vague signs marking the cemetery, but Fort Bend ISD is working to change that.

"A visitor would wonder like hmmm I wonder what’s going on here. So the next step is to apply for that historical marker," explains Olainu-Alade.