Remains of 95 Black “convict lease laborers” who were basically post-Civil War slaves found in Texas
Note: Many articles covering this event note that the men and a few women who are the subjects of this piece were identified as contract laborers, but in this historical and sociological context, these people were enslaved, still doing hard plantation labor with no compensation and not out of their own free will.
According to reports from the Star and Houston Chronicle, the bones of 95 Black people believed to be convict lease workers were found in Sugar Land, TX at a construction site. The area was slated to become the James Reese Technical Center, Fort Bend ISD’s new state of the art campus, but in February construction crews found bones jutting out from where they were to build.
Last month, a judge allowed the bodies discovered there to be exhumed. The land was formerly home to sugar cane plantations and later prison work camps, and the practice of leasing out prisoners to plantation owners in the area was barbaric and often led to the deaths of mostly Black men.
In fact, historian Robert Perkinson’s estimate places the number of prison lease deaths in the South higher than the number of lynchings in the region. More than 3,500 prisoners died as convict leases between the years 1866 and 1912, before lawmakers moved to make the practice illegal in Texas.
Caleb McDaniel, history professor at Houston’s illustrious Rice University told the Houston Chronicle, “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,” McDaniel elaborates. “And so the convict-leasing system saw extremely high levels of mortality and sickness under convict lessees. If the prisoner died, they would simply go back to the state and say, ‘You owe us another prisoner.’”
Reggie Moore, a local Black community activist who is the volunteer custodian of the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, had been warning the Fort Bend ISD not to build on the land for close to 19 years. Moore had believed for a while that the land probably held the bodies of those contracted out by the state to perform labor, a practice that had earned Sugar Land the dubious title of “Hell-hole on the Brazos.”
“When I actually saw those skeletal remains, it connected me to the individual,” Moore said. “They became individuals, not skeletons. It was overwhelming to me to actually see the people who had been victimized inhumanely.”
Archeology Division Director of the Texas Historical Commission Patricia Mercado-Allinger is urging community members who think they may have family who were interred at that site or who may know more of the history of the area to come forward. Catrina Whitley, a bioarcheologist with Goshawk Environmental Consulting, is also encouraging those potential relatives to have DNA tests done.