SUGAR LAND, Texas – February marks three years since the first human remains were discovered at the construction site of a new Fort Bend Independent School District school. Over the course of several months, 95 unmarked graves were found and the people buried there would become known as the Sugar Land 95.
The district said they’ve made efforts to honor the people and the history that was buried there, but some community members have said more needs to be done to make sure the true story is told and protected.
‘At the time, we were building a building’
The district came under fire in those early days for ignoring warnings from local historian and community activist Reginald Moore, who passed away in July 2020. Moore said he began alerting FBISD years before construction began, that the site could be the final resting place of dozens of Black people who were incarcerated, often on bogus charges, as part of the state’s convict leasing program.
“These guys have been in captivity,” Moore told KPRC 2 during a July 2018 interview. “My job is to set the captives free.”
Moore said the men were brutalized and tortured as the state of Texas looked to continue free labor in the aftermath of slavery.
Though construction was stopped for a time when the graves were discovered, FBISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center now stands tall over the site.
KPRC 2 asked outgoing FBISD superintendent, Charles Dupre, Ed.D., to reflect on what if anything he, and the district should have done differently.
“Given the opportunity to go back, we might have spent more time before just simply exhuming the bodies,” Dupre said. “We might have just designated that cemetery, as it was, and left it untouched, and constructed around it as we ended up doing.”
“At the time, we were building a building,” he added. “We knew we needed to care for the needs of these individuals and any, any ancestors that may already have their relatives and may come up in the future we wanted to show respect. But we were in the process of building that building, and even more importantly, at that time, legal guidance told us we could not maintain the cemetery. So the intent at the time was to exhume the bodies and move them to a cemetery nearby, another prison cemetery for proper respect, where they could, those graves could be maintained. The laws changed and now we’re able to maintain it.”
Overall, Dupre praised the handling of the discovery.
“I think we’ve handled it in an exemplary way each step of the way, and I would argue and debate with anyone who thinks we haven’t,” he said. “We have, every step of the way, shown respect and dignity and honor and done what we thought was right and best for to recognize those individuals and in the situation in which they lived and died.”
What’s in a name?
Posts connected by chains form a circle around the cemetery with flat markers at each grave.
Nearby placards call it the “Bullhead Camp Cemetery.”
“Our ultimate goal is for it to be a site where students and the community can come out and learn,” said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, FBISD’s coordinator of community and civic engagement.
The district said its research shows Bullhead Camp is what the laborers called it at the time. However, the name of the cemetery remains a point of contention for community members and those carrying out Reginald Moore’s legacy at his non-profit, The Convict Leasing and Labor Project.
Bullhead is a geographical reference to a creek, said Jay Jenkins, of CLLP. He said the district is erasing history by not using names of any of the men involved in establishing convict leasing in Sugar Land.
“We insist that history be accurate,” Jenkins said. “We think it should be called the Ellis camp as it was during the era of convict leasing.”
Research and outreach
In September 2020, FBISD released a 500-page report identifying who they believe are 72 of the Sugar Land 95, based on historical records.
In January 2021, the district mailed an educational flyer to 140,000 FBISD households.
“We timed the mailer so that it came out right ahead of Black History Month,” said Olainu-Alade.
‘Nothing ... done in good faith’
Three years later, some have said that the district is still ignoring the wishes of community stakeholders.
Kofi Taharka, national chair of the National Black United Front, remains an outspoken critic of the district’s handling of what he calls sacred ground.
“Through three years of a lot of protests, meetings, writing, talking (and) spiritual events, it seems FBISD has had a deaf ear to what community had been offering for proper acknowledgment,” Taharka said. “There’s nothing FBISD can say they have done in good faith.”
The district said plans for a permanent memorial and museum and DNA testing of the remains are still in the works.