Fort Bend ISD on Monday released the executive summary of its report, “Back to Bondage – Forced Labor in Post Reconstruction Era Texas: The Discovery, Exhumation, and Bioarcheological Analysis of Bullhead Convict Labor Camp Cemetery,” which focused on the 95 people whose remains were found on FBISD property in 2018.
The Texas Historical Commission approved the report, which documents the findings associated with the research conducted on the Bullhead Convict Labor Camp Cemetery.
“The historic discovery of the Sugar Land 95 two and half years ago has had a significant impact on not only FBISD and the Fort Bend community, but on the state and national level as well,” FBISD Board President Jason Burdine said in a news release.
“The finalization of this report marks an important milestone in the ongoing efforts to educate the community about the Sugar Land 95 and the atrocities of the state-sanctioned convict leasing system. The Bullhead Camp laborers played a fundamental role in building Fort Bend County and the city of Sugar Land, and we remain committed to bringing awareness to their lives and legacies, and revealing the true story of the injustices and exploitation associated with the system of convict leasing.”
The school district has partnered with the University of Connecticut, which has established a permanent fund to support the DNA extraction and related costs of studying the “Sugar Land 95” as they are known.
The executive summary of the report details the ongoing DNA studies at UConn and its attempt to “narrow down possible identities and compare data to local populations to find descendants, thus confirming the identities of at least some of the individuals from the cemetery population.”
The UConn Foundation is leading this research, and is accepting donations.
FBISD’s discovery of 95 sets of human remains in February 2018 at an abandoned and unmarked gravesite at 12300 University Blvd. set off a contentious debate over the fate of the site, which was formerly a forced labor camp for African-Americans.
School district and Fort Bend County leaders lobbied state legislators to amend an existing law so the county could own and operate a cemetery, with the district then offering to give the county $1 million while transferring the land. But FBISD backed out of that deal and, without the county’s involvement and amid protests, reburied the remains in November 2019 at the same site where they were found.
Activists have criticized the school district’s handling of the remains, saying it failed to honor the deceased. An online petition titled “STOP THE DESECRATION OF THE #SUGARLAND95 REMAINS AND GRAVESITE” has garnered 170 signatures.
“There is still more work to be done to properly honor the Sugar Land 95 and the countless others who fell victim to the system of convict leasing,” Chassidy Olainu-Alade, FBISD’s coordinator of community and civic engagement, said in a news release.
Historical documents cited in the report offer the names of 72 men who died at the Bullhead Camp between 1879 and 1909. While the data can help create a more accurate timeline to further develop the public’s understanding of the “brutal treatment and unimaginable conditions” at Bullhead Camp Cemetery, a DNA match to living descendants is needed to identify the 95 interred remains and match them with the 72 names on the report.
“Fort Bend ISD has been dedicated to ensuring that we educate our students about the history of convict leasing, and the integration of this local standard will ensure that this continues for years to come,” FBISD superintendent Charles Dupre said in a statement. “It is heartbreaking that the Sugar Land 95 were previously forgotten, left in an abandoned cemetery that lay hidden for decades. Educating our community and bringing awareness to their plight will ensure that they – and the injustices they suffered – are never again forgotten.”
In May 2019, the FBISD Board of Trustees voted to integrate the Sugar Land 95 discovery into the district’s social studies curriculum for the 2019-20 school year.
The topic of convict leasing in the state and the Sugar Land 95 will also be included in course curriculum and the corresponding TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for the state’s African-American Studies course. The measure was approved by the State Board of Education in April and is set to be offered to FBISD students for the 2020-21 school year.
Olainu-Alade worked with Aicha Davis, a state board of education representative, to develop the TEKS.
“It is my hope that Fort Bend ISD can lead in bringing awareness to this lost part of history by educating the masses,” Olainu-Alade said. “I hope to engage the community as we take steps forward in educating and memorializing the Sugar Land 95.”