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A School District Wants to Relocate the Bodies of 95 Black Forced-Labor Prisoners

A school district owns the property where the bodies of 95 black convict-lease prisoners from Jim Crow era were buried.

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A school construction site in Sugar Land, Tex., turned into a site of mourning when the bodies of 95 black prisoners re-enslaved in the decades after the Civil War were discovered there earlier this year, buried two to five feet beneath the soil.

Historians believed, virtually without a doubt, that the bodies belonged to victims of the notorious convict-leasing system, the for-profit prison scheme that proliferated throughout the Jim Crow South and overwhelmingly targeted African Americans for petty offenses for decades after slavery was abolished. In Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston, they had likely been sentenced to hard labor in the same sugarcane fields for which Sugar Land is now named, as The Washington Post reported in July.

For the African American community the burial site became sacred ground.

But for Fort Bend Independent School District, which owns the land, there is a caveat: The grave site also happens to interfere with its school construction.

And so it wants to move the graves.

The situation has pitted the interests of school officials tethered to taxpayer-approved construction-bond funds against the interests of preservationists and the greater African American community in Fort Bend County. This month, a city-appointed task force made up of diverse activists and scholars alike voted 19-1 to recommend reburying the since-exhumed bodies at the same site where they were found. But the school district, with the lone nay vote, has objected, complicating the delicate question of how to most respectfully memorialize exploited black lives when tremendous historical significance is at stake.

On Tuesday, despite the input from the task force, Sugar Land City Council voted 6-0 to approve an interlocal agreement in favor of relocating the bodies to a nearby existing prison cemetery.

The decision, task force members told The Post, left them feeling deflated.

“A lot of us feel like the task force has no real significance,” said Reginald Moore, a local African American activist on the task force, who had been warning public officials for nearly 20 years that bodies of convict-leasing prisoners could be buried on the acreage.

The school district, which has still sought to take part in planning memorials and educational exhibits for students, has maintained it doesn’t have the legal or practical means to operate a cemetery on its property, as spokeswoman Veronica Sopher told The Post. She said the district believes the the front yard of a high school isn’t an appropriate location for the cemetery, and in addition, she said the district has an obligation to taxpayers to complete the bond-funded construction project.