Community members disapprove of Sugar Land's decision to move historic remains

FORT BEND COUNTY – Community members had a roundtable discussion talking about their disapproval with Sugar Land City Council's decision to move the 95 remains found at a historic grave site in Sugar Land.

Concerned citizens said the remains are part of history and deserved to rest where they were found.

Community leaders met in Southeast Houston at the All Real Radio studio to discuss the City Council's decision. The City Council voted Tuesday night to move the remains of what is believed to be 95 incarcerated African-Americans and former slaves who were forced into Texas' notorious Convict Leasing System. The remains included all males - except for one female - ages 14 to 70 years old.

Fort Bend ISD and the Texas Historical Commission found the remains while in the process of constructing the James Reese Career and Technical Center in February. In June, the bodies were exhumed for testing. The main point of contention was about what would happen to the remains when they are ready to be returned.

In September, the City Manager's Task Force was established to help determine what to do with the remains. The Task Force was made up of community members, academics, scientists, activists, and other stakeholders to provide input and advice on matters related to pursing DNA analysis, burial location and re-interment burial services.

According to Task Force members, an overwhelming majority of the force had recommended returning the remains to where they were found. Despite that recommendation, the council decided to move the remains to the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. 

"As the property owner where the human remains were found, Fort Bend Independent School District has the responsibility of evaluating suitable burial locations to re-inter the bodies," read a statement in the City Council's records. Citing restrictions on using school bond funding solely for school facility construction-related purposes, their primary role as an educational institution, and not possessing the authority to act as a perpetual care cemetery, it is the preference of the FBISD to re-inter the bodies at the Sugar Land Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery."

Concerned community members criticized that the board was detached from the historical and cultural meaning of the human remains, saying that each of those remains has a story and a family who may still be alive.

Members of the community pushed for in-depth DNA testing to be done so that the ancestors of the remains could provide input on where the remains should go.

"It's important to us because a lot of nationalities don't know the feeling of not knowing where you're from, not having a key to your lineage, having so many pages of your history ripped out of a history book and replaced with lies," said Task Force member Swatara Olushola who is also a radio host at All Real Radio. 

Olushola said she was frustrated that the Task Force's recommendation was not heard.

"We are just here for optics only. We have no decision making power," Olushola said. "It's a total desecration to the lives of these men who did free labor year after year after year, so that Sugar Land could be the city that it is today."

The National Black United Front has started a petition online. 

"You don't want to desecrate or disturb a sacred cemetery or burial site. No self-respecting human beings of any culture would want to do that," said Kofi Taharka, the national chairman of the National Black United Front.

They are unsure of whether the DNA analysis will happen. They have started a petition online. They said this issue is about more than just the remains but what they stand for.