My Visit to to the Imperial Sugar Prison Farm

Today I drove down to Sugar Land from Austin to take a tour of the recently discovered cemetery at what was once the Imperial Sugar Prison Farm, one of the most notorious convict lease forced labor camps in American history.  The facility has gone by several names, one of the more noted being “Hellhole on the Brazos.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice turned over the “Central Unit” property to the City of Sugar Land and other entities nearly two decades ago, which the city has turned into the “Telfair” subdivision, now worth billions of dollars.  The land where the recently discovered cemetery is located is currently owned and controlled by the Fort Bend Independent School District.  You may have heard about this find, as it has garnered coverage not only in the local press, but also nationally and even internationally.

A brief bit of history.  As you can see if you read my bio on this website, I have been involved in efforts to research, commemorate, and teach the history of Texas convict leasing for over 14 years.  I first met Reginald Moore in 2006, and have over the years supported his mostly solitary effort to get local and state authorities to even just acknowledge this sordid history.  Over the years both Mr. Moore and I told anyone willing to listen that there were more bodies out there, and that efforts should be undertaken to find them.  Well, they found them.  As usual, it wasn’t archaeologists who found the graves, it was construction workers.

What I experienced today at the tour made my heart heavy.  There were no black people working there, in any official capacity as archaeologists or in any other professional capacity.  I learned that the school district’s contractor had no clue about the existence of the  historic context document for African-American archaeology in Texas.  Nor had the Texas Historical Commission brought it to his attention, despite the fact that it is an official THC document hosted on their servers.

I saw that the Fort Bend ISD had police officers on-site, although high level security such as this has not been and usually is not a fixture at other construction sites.  I learned that the school district would not allow visitors to park near the cemetery, despite the fact that many of them were elderly, disabled, or otherwise mobility impaired.  All of us, myself included, (I am a disabled veteran with Texas license plates certifying that status) were made to park, in sweltering heat, in a parking lot located about a quarter to a half mile away from the cemetery site owned by the grocery store chain HEB.

Unsurprisingly, one of the visitors passed out during the press conference conducted after our visit, and an ambulance had to be called to take her to the hospital.  All in all, a rather poor and thoughtless performance by the school district and its public relations personnel.   This is clearly a school district that wants to pretend–perhaps even believe–that it is doing its dead level best to work with descendant community members, interested parties, and the public, but based upon what I saw today, they are full of shit.

At the press conference Kofi Taharka, the president of the National Black United Front, presented six demands.  I fully support these demands, as they are based upon precedent described in the historic context/planning guide mentioned earlier.  I reproduce them here:
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Imperial Sugar Prison Farm Cemetery

List of Concerns and Demands

  1. Intellectual Control.  The community does not want public relations or the manufacture of consent.  We want the authority and power to have the meaning of this find interpreted by scholars familiar with the intellectual and cultural traditions of black America and the African Diaspora, as well as the history of Texas.  Most white for-hire archaeologists have neither the educational background, frame of reference or African consciousness necessary to properly understand and interpret the significance of this find.  We demand that intellectual control for this project be transferred to properly credentialed and experienced scholars.  If a new firm must be hired under new terms, so be it.
  2. Historic Context.  From the outset this project has been treated more as a regulatory inconvenience rather than as an opportunity.  Evidence shows it is largely being handled as a cemetery removal and relocation project driven by the real estate objectives of the Fort Bend ISD.  The existing African-American historic context document for Texas has clearly not been consulted, much less understood by the archaeologists working on this site, and the development of a proper historic context for this project more specifically has been regarded as an afterthought by school district officials.  Instead of seizing the “inadvertent” discovery of these human remains—which were found by a construction worker, not the archaeologists hired by the school district—as an opportunity for truly meaningful public and pupil education, the school district is instead complaining about project delays and having to spend more money.  Given the achievement gaps and overall inequality characteristic of Fort Bend ISD, many community members do not find such an attitude by certain school district officials surprising.
  3. True Descendant Community Engagement and Involvement.  Lineal and cultural descendants of these people should be sought, and next of kin should be identified.  DNA testing and state of the art scholarship should be conducted, and a comprehensive burial treatment plan should be developed involving artists, religious leaders, and other concerned individuals or groups.  There should be no timeline for this consultation.
  4. Education, not just Commemoration.  The story and meaning of what this find represents should be regarded as a monumental and unique teachable moment.  This is about more than human remains, it is about what those remains symbolize and for whom.  We support the eventual establishment of a convict leasing museum, and urge all parties to resist the temptation, so common in Texas, to erect a plaque or memorial and to then just be done with it.
  5. Beyond Legal Sufficiency.  Questions of historical agency and memory reach far beyond what the law requires.  Given the shameful history of convict leasing, this project raises questions about the moral responsibility of government at every level.  Convict leasing was a crime against humanity, just as the holocaust was.  It bears keeping in mind that concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Majdanek and others were forced labor camps, not simply extermination camps.  This is the proper moral frame of reference operative in Sugarland.
  6. Reparations.  The weight of history bears upon us all.  Convict leasing was a state sanctioned practice from which the state treasury benefited.  The Imperial Sugar Company at its height was one of the richest and most powerful corporations in Texas, and was the largest sugar company in the United States.  What responsibility does the State of Texas bear for these horrific facts and other facts related to the state’s shameful criminal justice history?  Why are the state’s children not taught this history as a routine part of their mandated Texas history curriculum?

Where do we go from here?  Let us see how Fort Bend ISD and others respond to the demands.  If they continue onward with their pretend campaign of public and descendant community engagement, expect me and others to continue to apply political pressure to force this project forward the right way.  The ancestors deserve nothing less.