State legislation would address Sugar Land 95
In April 2018, workers at the site of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center made a discovery of human remains buried on the site. Lots of remains.
When the initial investigation was completed, the district announced the buried remains represented 95 people buried on the site of a former prison. The remains are believed to be former prisoners. They were part of a convict-leasing system wherein inmates were contracted to perform cheap labor across the state.
“In 2018, the discovery of an unmarked burial ground at the former Imperial State Prison Farm site in Sugar Land drew national attention to an abhorrent chapter in history,” State Rep. Ron Reynolds said in a news release. “Archaeologists at the site found the skeletal remains of 95 victims of the convict leasing system, which was used after the Civil War to replicate the oppression that existed under slavery. Although the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited involuntary servitude, it created an exemption for people convicted of crimes. Southern states, including Texas, took advantage by enacting ‘Black Codes,’ laws that applied only to African Americans, who could be prosecuted criminally for such offenses as loitering, breaking curfew, or not carrying proof of employment.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Fort Bend commissioners voted unanimously to authorize the county attorney to negotiate an agreement with the Fort Bend Independent School District that could lead to a memorial and cemetery honoring 95 African-American remains. Fort Bend ISD in turn agreed to negotiate.
Then on Thursday, Feb. 21, Fort Bend ISD announced that it would halt its legal actions and avoid construction on a site. The decision all but ensures that the remains will stay in their longtime resting place as activists sought for months.
Now in the Texas Legislature, Reynolds has issued multiple bills — House Bills 2036, 2428 and 2430; House Concurrent Resolutions 51 and 55; and House Joint Resolution 87 — to bring light to the convict leasing system.
“This bold slew of legislation is designed to replace the confederate monument in the capitol with a plaque to honor the victims of convict leasing, to commission a study to determine the legacy of convict leasing, to establish a museum to educate the public on the history of convict leasing, and to administer $95 million in reparations to the descendants of the 95 victims of the convict leasing system discovered in Sugar Land,” Reynolds said in a news release.
HB 2036 relates to issuance of permits for the analysis of human remains recovered on state archeological landmarks.
HB 2428 relates to the burial of convict leasing victims and the establishment of a convict leasing victims memorial museum.
HB 2430 relates to requirements in a suit for the removal of human remains from a cemetery.
HJR 87 proposes “a constitutional amendment requiring the payment of reparations to the next of kin of certain victims of the state’s convict leasing system.”
HCR 51 would create a joint interim committee to “study the legacy of convict leasing in Texas.”
HCR 55 would direct the “State Preservation Board to initiate steps to provide for the replacement of the Children of the Confederacy plaque with a plaque to honor victims of the state’s convict leasing system.”
The prisoners in the convict leasing system were used in many industries.
According to Reynolds, “The state of Texas leased prisoners as cheap labor to private railways, mines, and agricultural operations, including the sugar plantations along the Brazos River. While receiving no pay, convicts often endured conditions even more brutal than slavery, given that contractors had no financial interest in their well-being.”
Reynolds said more than 3,500 prisoners died between 1866 and 1912, when the legislature outlawed convict leasing.
“While the state and employers profited, the families and communities of victims suffered damage that spanned generations,” Reynolds said. “A full understanding of the convict leasing system and its after effects is vital to addressing issues that continue to plague society today, including mass incarceration, convict labor, prison privatization, and entrenched poverty.”
Reynolds represents Texas House District 27, which encompasses Fort Bend County.
Reporter Brooke A. Lewis contributed to this report.