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A battle for a burial ground and dignity

By Rhodesia Muhammad Contributing Writer @rhodesiamuhamma | Last updated: Aug 20, 2019 - 2:00:20 PM

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HOUSTON—“It’s a human right to have a decent burial and the right to not have that burial be disturbed by anything. Only dogs and really cruel people desecrate cemeteries,” said Fred McGhee, historical archeologist and urban and environmental anthropologist, who is among those who want an historic Texas site where Black bodies were found preserved. 

Reginald Moore stands inside the cemetery where he serves as the steward in Sugar Land, Texas. City officials in the Houston suburb are calling for a cemetery reburial of the remains found in dozens of unmarked graves at a school district’s construction site. Photo: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP

In Sugar Land, Texas, there are fears the Fort Bend Independent School District will desecrate land where the remains of 95 Blacks identified as slave convicts­—young men and boys who were sent to prison, leased out, and forced to do free labor in 1883 after slavery was abolished—were found. The burial ground was discovered after the school district embarked on a construction project. There are questions about who will control the site and whether a memorial will be erected. Some activists fear some remains may have been moved or the landscape already changed.

“I believe to desecrate is to dishonor, disrespect, a holy or sacred place and a cemetery with these tortured souls have definitely been disrespected and dishonored,” said Kofi Taharka, national chairman of the National Black United Front, who has been involved since the discovery of the remains in April. “Because this comes from that convict leasing labor era, this was after the Emancipation Proclamation, after Juneteenth, the re-enslavement of our people. So, there’s so much potentially to be gained about the history of how they used us to build wealth. Their (the school district’s) attitude from the jump street really has been … well, this is historic but it’s really messing with our time frame.”

Kofi Tahaka of the National Black United Front. Photos: NBUF
The school district denies the accusations. 

Confusion, however, has arisen over who might ultimately control the sacred site. Fort Bend County, Texas and Fort Bend school district were thought to have reached an agreement under which the county would take over the site. But the transfer of land ownership to the county was to include $1 million to help pay for re-internment and memorialization of the bodies. When word came that the county wanted the school district to reinter the remains before transferring ownership, a squabble began over the details and the $1 million the school district had planned to give the county to reinter the remains.

Still, the school district insists nothing will be built over the burial site and plans for building a new wing of a career and technical center have been cancelled.

Respect for a final resting place

Historians and experts have said if removing remains from their resting place can be avoided, avoid it. Whatever adjustments are needed should be done without disturbing the final resting place, they say. 

According to the Texas Historical Committee, the bodies from convict leasing ranged in age from 14  years old to 70 years old. At least one woman was identified among the remains.

“If these were remains of European Jews who had been victimized in a Nazi prison camp and it was found and discovered, how would they be handled?” Mr. Taharka asked. “Even with our Native American brothers and sisters, there are certain protections in the law. They have to fight all the time for their sacred grounds.”

Many feel the remains should be studied by Black archeological experts. One complaint is that the school district contracted all White archeologists and anthropologists to study the site and remains. 

Construction is ongoing on The James Reese Career and Technical Center, located at University Boulevard and Chatham Avenue, where it was announced that over 20 bodies were found, April 10, 2018, in Sugar Land. Photo: AP Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via
“One of the reasons I became an archeologist is because I’m like a history book,” Dr. McGhee said. “The artifacts don’t lie, especially with human remains. They (the school district) have consistently denied and consistently minimized. I am the first African American to graduate from the University of Texas with a Ph.D. in archeology and they have not once invited me to look at any of the archeology that their contract archeologists have performed.” 

Those who belong to the Black community need to be involved, he added. They need to be able to influence whether the intellectual authority from the story that gets told is done by qualified Black archeologists, said Dr. McGhee.

“Fort Bend ISD has consistently tried to use its lawyers to try to shield themselves from any sort of public accountability and minimize any type of public involvement,” Dr. McGhee continued. “The state of Texas should issue an apology to the African American community and start a dialogue about the role and the influence of the institution of convict leasing and the history of the Lone Star state. Why don’t we start there? We don’t want to just have that stuff talked about in books. We should be creating a museum at that site and that should become a permanent archeological center or something along those lines so that people can develop an appreciation for its meaning.”

Activists want a burial site for Blacks subjected to convict leasing program in Sugar Land, Texas preserved.

Dr. McGhee always said that particular parcel of land was archeologically sensitive and at some point he knew somebody would find something and they wouldn’t be able to cover it up.

“I want to see the complete control of the remains taken out of the school district’s hands,” said Swatara Olushola, a member of the National Black United Front. All too often this country tries to sweep its negative toxic history under the rug when it pertains to Black people, she said. 

“We know the Sugar Land 95 is not the only ones. We know that the blood and the bones and the flesh of our ancestors are all over this land. When it comes to the protocol of what to do we have to make sure they are honored and revered correctly,” she said.

“They do not have their true best interest at heart. I would like to see complete DNA testing to give these men and boys and elders names. I think they deserve that. The school district likes to single out that they want this to be a learning opportunity and they want them to be correctly memorialized, but I don’t think that’s possible without knowing who they are.”

“I would like to have their descendants find out who they are and notify them to give them an opportunity to come forward and speak for their own ancestors,” said Ms. Olushola continued. “As far as memorialization, we don’t know what religion they practiced or what traditions they may have for their families. They might have their own family graves that they’ve had in their families for generations that they want to bury their own great grandfather and great, great grandfather. But instead the district wants to put something that sacred into their own hands and their own jurisdiction which they know they wouldn’t want that for their own families.”

Many believe the Sugar Land 95 make the case for reparations. “If the descendants can be brought forward because of what we know about prison convict labor, then this is a great individual example for descendants to be able to put forth a justifiable righteous claim for reparations,” said Mr. Taharka.