Teach all of our history
Why does racism persist in America? Because to defeat a demon you must confront it, and too many times this nation has turned its head when it needed to face that adversary. Sometimes, though, you can’t pretend it’s not there.
America couldn’t look away in 1963 when four little girls were killed in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. It couldn’t close its eyes in 2012 after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death for walking through a Miami Gardens, Fla., neighborhood where he didn’t live. It couldn’t turn its back in 2015 when a woman committed suicide in the Waller County Jail after being arrested for what looked like another case of driving while black.
This country’s past is filled with stories where racism, instead of being confronted, was ignored. Include among those stories the sad saga of Texas’ Imperial Prison Farm. There, slavery by another name persisted long after the Civil War in what sounds like the most idyllic of settings — Sugar Land. From 1878 well into the 20th century, prison farm inmates, most of them black, performed backbreaking, heart-stopping work on nearby sugar plantations through convict-leasing agreements.
The harsh treatment the inmates suffered was recounted in a recent article by Chronicle reporter Brooke Lewis. The genesis of the article was a discovery made in October 2017. That’s when a backhoe operator digging up soil for construction of a new school saw what he thought might be a human bone. Subsequent digging by archaeologists uncovered 95 precisely rectangular graves, each containing a disintegrated pinewood casket buried two to five feet deep. It was an unmarked graveyard for Imperial Prison Farm convicts. Inside were the remains of 94 men and one woman, ranging in age from 14 to 70. Their causes of death varied.
Bill Mills, one of the few white inmates who served time at Imperial Prison Farm, wrote about the experience in his book, “25 Years Behind Prison Bars,” self-published around 1939. Mills said he was beaten by an assistant captain known as “Pistol Pete,” who would punish inmates with a 6-foot-long bullwhip. “He would sit on his horse and whip the men like oxen, any place he could hit,” wrote Mills.
What happens next to the unmarked grave site is up to the Fort Bend School District since the graves were on its property. One suggestion is that a museum be constructed on the site. That would be a good way for people to learn about convict leasing and draw their own conclusions about a justice system that this many years later still locks up a disproportionate number of black men.
People would learn that Texas wasn’t the only Southern state that made money off the sweat and blood of its inmates. Many were arrested on the flimsiest of charges — loitering, vagrancy, looking at a white woman — and then thrown into prison to work off their sentences on a farm, in a mine, or building roads. The most infamous of these prison farms was the Parchman penitentiary in Mississippi, where inmates were subject to punishment with a whip the guards called “Black Annie.”
Finding the unmarked Sugar Land graves on school property should serve as an incentive for educators not just in Texas but across America to reconsider how history is taught. American History courses that never mention the convict-leasing system, and only briefly acknowledge that segregation in the South was once the law, give young people a diluted impression of what America was, which makes it harder for them to see it clearly now.
Too many generations have grown into adulthood without learning at school or anywhere else how African-Americans were treated for a hundred years after slavery ended. Their history lessons never covered how convict-leasing also exploited whites by depriving them of jobs that were instead contracted out for cheap labor from a penitentiary. They never learned how politicians fomented racism to keep poor whites and blacks from uniting to end their exploitation.
Let’s use the discovery of the Sugar Land graves as the motivating spark to throw out the old history books and give students a closer look at some of the least-studied aspects of this nation’s journey. That would help explain why racism remains entrenched. Students need to understand why a connection can be made between the Imperial Prison Farm convicts and Sandra Bland, the black woman who committed suicide in the Waller County Jail. They need to see what too many of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents refused to see — that the only way to fight racism is face to face.