Court hearing held over remains of former slaves on Fort Bend ISD construction site

HOUSTON – The legal battle over the remains of former slaves forced into convict labor camps that were discovered last February on a Fort Bend Independent School District construction site headed back to court Tuesday morning.

FBISD filed a motion asking a judge to overturn his November order appointing Richmond attorney Michael Elliott as a special independent investigator to the oversee the case. 

The district claims his role is not necessary. 

FBISD wants the judge to allow the district to rebury the remains elsewhere so construction can continue on the new technical center at Chatham Avenue and University Boulevard in Sugar Land. The district is constructing the James Reese Career and Technical Center, a $58 million state-of-the-art career and technology center that was approved by voters as part of a 2014 bond program.

"The center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019. It will offer advanced courses providing career opportunities in agriculture and natural resources, architecture and construction, arts and audio video communications, culinary arts, cosmetology, education and training, information technology, law and public safety, manufacturing, transportation and logistics. Students will have access to dual credit courses and multiple opportunities to earn industry certifications while completing coursework at the center," the district said.

Associate Judge John Hawkins ordered the remains to be exhumed this past June. A team of archaeologists hired by the district exhumed the remains of 95 individuals over a four-month period. The remains are currently being kept in storage boxes awaiting reburial.

Texas law requires that the remains be reburied in a county, municipal or perpetual care cemetery.

"In October, the district and the city of Sugar Land agreed to a final resting place for the remains at the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, an existing city-owned and maintained cemetery that has a shared history with the land where the remains were discovered. Both the Texas Historical and Fort Bend County Historical commissions participated in the planning discussion and supported the District’s plan," the district said.

"I'm going to try to see that justice gets done in this case, whatever that may be," Elliott said after the hearing.

Community activists who attended today's hearing said they believe FBISD is trying to silence its critics.

"They want to maintain that master-slave relationship from 150 years ago and deny what the judge has ordered, allowing people to have a say, so who have an interest in this case," said Kofi Taharka, of the National Black United Front.

The judge is expected to rule on the motion in the next few days.

"If the court does not allow the bodies to be reburied at the city-owned cemetery, the center would have to be redesigned to a different area of the property. The cost to construct the redesigned center would add an additional estimated $18 million in costs to the $58 million bond project, which could push the project an estimated $25 million over budget," the district said.

Click here to read the district's motion.

Fort Bend ISD released the following response to Tuesday's hearing:

"Our District has a responsibility to our students, taxpayers, and the citizens who voted in support of this project to avoid the continuing delay and economic harm being caused to the taxpayers,” said FBISD Board President Jason Burdine. “The District and the City of Sugar Land reached an agreement to bury the remains in a city-owned cemetery in October.

"The only hold up now is that we need approval from the court. Further delay will leave the remains without a final resting place and will add millions of dollars of unbudgeted costs to the project. The District’s mission is to educate students. It is legally prohibited from operating a cemetery and we need the court to approve the plan to rebury the remains at the city cemetery without further delay.”

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