Officials with the Fort Bend Independent School District want to build a new career and technical center on what, at first glance, looks like an empty field near Sugar Land, southwest of Houston.
The school was scheduled to open this fall, but that’s not happening. When it will ever open is a big question, not because of budget concerns or problems with construction, but because of a subterranean discovery: dozens of unmarked graves.
It’s a story that Brooke Lewis has been covering for the Houston Chronicle. She says the people buried at the school site are former prisoners, many of whom are believed to have worked for the convict leasing system. They were contracted by the agency to perform labor across the state. There are 95 people buried on the site.
“Prisoners were contracted out, and it was sometimes through private individuals,” Lewis says. “In Sugar Land, it was through individuals who were former plantation owners, Ellis and Cunningham.”
Lewis says the inmates are believed to have been working on the former plantation site. Many convicts who worked within the leasing system were African-American, and some believe using them in this way constitutes a return to slavery. The search for the prisoners’ remains came after an activist brought the possibility of their existence to light. He had been arguing that remains could be buried on the property for years, but no one listened, Lewis says.
“Reginald Moore actively spoke out about these possible remains on the site because there is a nearby cemetery that holds a similar history,” Lewis says.
The Texas prison system used money it earned from leasing convicts to make up funding shortfalls.
The Fort Bend school district had planned to move the remains to the nearby cemetery, but a judge last week delayed its petition to continue construction. Lewis says the judge wanted to delay a decision until the community had a chance to give input. A final decision could be made by March, which would create further construction delays.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.