A Texas-Sized Tragedy

Horrific Convict-Leasing System Exposes Dark Truths about American History

Slave shackles, chain and rope. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Slave shackles, chain and rope.

By Jeffrey L. Boney, NNPA Contributing Writer

Slavery was an extremely barbaric and traumatic legalized institution that negatively impacted the lives of many people of African descent, while making countless Southern White slave and plantation owners extraordinarily wealthy as a result of this system of forced labor.

The recent discovery of the graves of 95 bodies, the majority of who are believed to be former slaves who were a part of the state of Texas’ controversial and inhumane convict-leasing system, serves as a dark reminder about the ill-treatment people of African descent have experienced in this country.

Several months after Fort Bend ISD broke ground on an exciting new technical center, one of the construction workers noticed something in the dirt. Upon further inspection, it was one of the bodies of the former convict-leasing system workers. This could have been unearthed some time before, but no one chose to listen to the man who had been shining the light on the possibility that these bodies were there all along – Reginald Moore.

Moore, who serves as the caretaker of the Imperial Farm Cemetery in Fort Bend County, had constantly reached out to elected officials, state employees, community leaders and the school district to warn them that the bodies could be buried near the land they were seeking to build on.

Initially, no one listened and his warnings fell on deaf ears.

“I reached out to everyone I could,” Moore tells the Forward Times. “I contacted the Texas Department of Corrections, the state of Texas, elected officials, the school district, but it was as if no one cared or wanted to believe the bodies were even there.”

Moore had always believed the bodies of those former convict-leasing system workers were there, especially because of his experience as a caretaker at historical cemeteries and his work as a correctional officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from 1985 to 1988. Moore has extensive knowledge about the convict leasing system, in that he worked in the Beauford H. Jester I and III Units, which is a prison farm located in unincorporated Fort Bend County. The Jester I Farm was the first one built by the state at this site and was known as the Old Harlem Farm. While working at that site, Moore became interested in the history of the prison system and became a major researcher on the subject matter.

After leaving the prison, Moore has continued to serve as a community activist and has sought to highlight and bring awareness to the abuses suffered by prison inmates who were forced to become a part of the Sugar Land convict-leasing system.

Much of the City of Sugar Land’s evolution came as a result of the wealth generated by one family who significantly benefited from forced labor through the convict-leasing system.

Back in 1878, the State of Texas sanctioned the contract to lease prison inmates to private firm of Ed H. Cunningham and L.A. Ellis (Cunningham and Ellis). Cunningham invested more than $1 million into the purchase of property where the firm developed a sugar mill and a sugar refinery. The town of Sugar Land eventually formed around it and after Cunningham’s plantation changed hands and became the home of the Imperial Sugar Company, the leasing of convicts continued.

In 1883, the land and the convict leasing system reverted to state control.

In 1909, the state of Texas opened the Imperial State Prison Farm on land that had previously belonged to Imperial Sugar. This was one of the first prison farms that the State of Texas owned. Back in 1930, that prison farm was renamed the Central State Prison Farm and the Texas state legislature approved funding to expand construction for additional units. Over the years, the land was transferred and/or sold to other interested parties to aid in Sugar Land’s rapid development, such as the land sold to Fort Bend ISD where the 95 bodies were recently found.

Moore believes that a memorial for the group should be established as a form of restitution, but also wants the State of Texas to issue a formal apology for this horrific legalized institution.

“I believe the state of Texas owes these individuals a formal apology for their decision to legalize such a horrible and inhumane system,” said Moore. “Yes, I believe these people deserve a memorial, but there is so much more to it than that. I have a duty to be an advocate for them and to speak from the grave for these people. I believe there are more bodies out there and I want there to be more sensitivity and concern for the bodies that haven’t been found yet. This system was wrong and there must be accountability.”

Sugar Land City Manager Allen Bogard appointed a task force that will provide a recommendation on the interment, memorialization and ceremonial funeral details of the historical remains.

“The cemetery was found because of Reginald Moore’s advocacy and dedication to the history of convict lease labor in the area,” said Bogard. “I can’t stress enough the importance of our task force. It is important that it comprises diverse community stakeholders, and I believe we’ve accomplished this purpose. “We are very pleased to continue to have the historical expertise of Mr. Moore from the Convict Leasing and Labor Project. He has been a long-time advocate of memorialization and education concerning this dark period of the state’s history. We believe that no one can speak ‘for the bones’ of these individuals with more passion and accuracy than Mr. Moore.”

The goal of the task force will be to ensure that the remains of the people discovered on the school district’s property are memorialized with the utmost dignity and in a manner that honors their historical significance. The task force will also provide a recommendation for future educational efforts to preserve a dark chapter of the region’s history.

The creation of the task force was recommended by the Texas Historical Commission and emulates a successful strategy implemented by the city of Waco after an unmarked historical cemetery was discovered during a construction project in the west Texas town. The Texas Historical Commission has requested the task force make a decision on DNA testing of the remains, officials said. The task force will meet for six months with meetings held on the first and third Wednesday of each month for the first two months and then one Wednesday a month thereafter. The first meeting was held on September 5th at Sugar Land City Hall.

The organizations invited to participate as a part of the task force include: Reginald Moore, of the Texas Slave Descendants Society (a group now called the Convict Leasing and Labor Project); City of Sugar Land; Fort Bend Independent School District; the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation; the Fort Bend Historical Commission; the Texas Historical Commission; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Houston Area Urban League; the Fort Bend Church; the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Embassy Church; Rice University Professor Caleb McDaniel; Slavery by Another Name author Douglas Blackmon; and members of the Sugar Land community. Sugar Land officials are also working on a detailed agreement with Fort Bend ISD for the future relocation of the bodies to the city’s Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, located at 6440 Easton Ave.

The city will fund costs associated with layout, design and location, as well as maintenance of the city’s cemetery. While a funding source has not yet been identified, the city will also work with community groups to explore funding opportunities for future park development that will include walking paths, interpretive historical information and parking, surrounding the city-owned Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. The city will continue its coordination with the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, a group established by the city to preserve and document the community’s rich history – including the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery on the city’s property, according to Sugar Land officials. The Fort Bend Independent School District will be responsible for the continued exhumation on their property; submitting a petition to the court for removal and reburial; funding costs associated with storage, new burial vessels, transportation, interment and security; and procurement and placement of temporary markers for each grave.

Slavery and forced labor have been a major part of the foundation of the United States since its inception, but when that system was interrupted as a result of President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it hit Southern White slave owners and plantation owners extremely hard in their pocket books.

The impact of this one legislative action was extremely significant for Southern White slave and plantation owners who immediately found themselves having to continue their business operations without the ability to forcefully and legally use the labor of Black slaves.

Because they could no longer rely on legalized slavery to force Black slaves to help them continue building their flourishing business enterprises, those same Southern White slave and plantation owners worked with their state governments to come up with creative new ways to use the law to their advantage.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and included verbiage that attempted to officially abolish slavery in the U.S., stating: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Former slave and plantation owners, as well as politicians from Southern states soon realized that the protections from legalized slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment did not apply to Blacks who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison. As a result, they collaborated together and developed legal systems within the state whereby an individual, typically a Black male, would be convicted of minor crimes, such as vagrancy or walking alongside railroad tracks, and then given felonies and sentenced to forced labor. Those convicted individuals would then be leased out from the state government to Southern White business owners, and forced to provide labor, in the same way that Southern White slave and plantation owners enjoyed during the days of slavery. This practice, known as ‘convict leasing’, became a burgeoning business model that caused demand to exceed supply and allowed Southern states and Southern White business owners to economically prosper.

Because Texas was the last state in the U.S. to officially end slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, they were the first to adopt this model of a convict-leasing system.

Over a four year period, up to a thousand Texas convicts were leased to private contractors to quarry granite for the Texas state capital building in Austin.  Time will tell if there are more bodies to be unearthed and discovered, with stories that need to be told.

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