In a city in Southeast Texas, workers are breaking ground on a new school. But underneath the streets and shopping malls of this suburban community lurks a dark secret. And when one man stumbles upon what looks like part of a human skeleton, the town’s horrible past is finally exposed.
Today, Sugar Land is a bustling city located in Fort Bend County, TX, some 19 miles from Houston. But back when the first settlers arrived, it was a fertile region known for its abundant plant life. And soon afterwards, the area became a plantation for crops such as corn, sugarcane and cotton.
The early residents of Sugar Land did not build the plantation off their own backs, however. Instead, they profited from the work of African-American slaves. And even though authorities outlawed the practice over 150 years ago, the ghosts of those exploited workers still cast their shadows over the modern city.
You see, some 180 years after Sugar Land became a plantation, work began on the James Reese Career and Technical Center. The center was to be a new school located on the site of an old prison farm. But in February 2018 one worker was operating a digger when he happened upon a gruesome sight.
The worker apparently spotted what he believed to be a piece of a human skeleton in the dirt. As a result, the Fort Bend Independent School District called in a team of archaeologists to investigate the site. And that spring, they discovered something unthinkable: almost 100 bodies, buried in an unmarked cemetery.
According to the archaeologists, the remains were each underneath between two and five feet of dirt. In addition, they seemed to have been placed in a series of orderly graves. And although the bodies had once been in pine coffins, these had essentially rotted away by the time of their discovery.
In June 2018, then, archaeologists began the lengthy process of unearthing and studying the mysterious bodies. By the following month, they had managed to excavate 50 graves and examine around a quarter of the remains. And slowly, a horrifying picture of Sugar Land’s past started to emerge.
According to an early analysis, all of the remains had physical traits commonly associated with African-American people. Moreover, these remains were found to be those of people who had been strong in build. “We can tell from the state of the bone and muscle attachment features that these were heavily built individuals,” Goshawk Environmental Consulting’s Reign Clark explained to CNN in July 2018. “Some bones were misshapen by the sheer musculature and labor.”
Apparently, nearly all of the remains belonged to men – with the body parts of just one woman recovered from the site. The remains also represented people of a broad range of ages, spanning from 14 to 70 years old. According to Clark, one young boy had been as tall as six feet – suggesting that the men had been chosen because of their physical build.
Given that forced labor built Sugar Land, it might seem unsurprising that a mass grave was found containing mostly African-American men beneath the city. It might be even less surprising to discover that the graves also contained relics such as chains. However, the bodies appear to date from the turn of the 20th century. And this means that those burials took place at least 13 years after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution had made slavery illegal.
Brought into effect in 1865, the 13th Amendment came two years after President Lincoln declared that all slaves in seceded states such as Texas were free. Yet even though slavery had been technically illegal since 1863, the earliest burials in this mass grave appear to date from 1878. In fact, some interments took place as late as 1910.
So what could have led to the creation of these graves in the first place? Well, according to historians, the state of Texas struggled in the aftermath of the Civil War. With slavery now illegal, the local economy fell into a depression. So, desperate to find a new source of labor that didn’t require paying fair wages, business owners began to look elsewhere.
Just a couple of years after the banning of slavery, then, Texas introduced the convict-leasing system. Essentially, this scheme allowed businesses to rent inmates from state prisons and put them to work wherever they saw fit. In practice, however, it was just another form of slave labor, and conditions were often grim.
Plus, the prisoners rented under this scheme were most often members of the African-American community. And with such trivial crimes as vagrancy and fraternizing with white women being enough to land a man in jail at the time, the convict-leasing program provided business owners with plenty of cheap labor.
In Sugar Land, two veterans of the Civil War – Littleberry Ellis and Edward Cunningham – began leasing convicts in 1878. And, alarmingly, the resultant prison farm soon became notorious throughout Texas for its terrible conditions. In fact, the camp earned the title “Hellhole on the Brazos” thanks to its proximity to the Texan river.
“When the state leased convicts out to private contractors, they had no financial interest in the health or welfare of the people working for them,” Rice University professor W. Caleb McDaniel told The Washington Post in July 2018. “And so the convict-leasing system saw extremely high levels of mortality and sickness. If the prisoner died, [the contractors] would simply go back to the state and say, ‘You owe us another prisoner.’”
Eventually, however, shocked by the sheer number of convicts who were dying, authorities banned the practice in Texas in 1912. Yet it remains unclear exactly how many people fell victim to this cruel system over the years. And to one man – former prison officer Reginald Moore – getting to the bottom of this dark period in Texas history has become something of a personal mission.
Having worked at one of the oldest jails in the state, Moore began looking into the convict-leasing system. Over time, moreover, the former guard began to believe that graveyards full of former prisoners must still be buried underneath Sugar Land. And during a 19-year-long search, he dedicated himself to locating them. Then the February 2018 discovery at the school site finally confirmed his suspicions.
Today, Moore is campaigning to have a memorial built for, and dedicated to, the prisoners who died in such terrible conditions. “I’m speaking for those who didn’t have a voice, then and now,” he explained in an interview with CNN in July 2018. “I felt like I was called to set them free.”
For now, excavations on the graveyard are continuing, with some 70 bodies left to examine. Meanwhile, local authorities have seized the chance to educate the town about some of the less pleasant aspects of Sugar Land’s past. “It’s a rare opportunity,” explained Clark. “We’ll be telling the story of what it was like to live, work and, in some cases, die here.”