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UPDATE: Fort Bend ISD Board Approves Potential Agreement With County To Build A Cemetery For “Sugar Land 95”

The next step is for the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court to also vote on the agreement.

Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media
This file photo shows archaeologists working at the discovered grave sites in Sugar Land.

UPDATE: The Board of Trustees of the Fort Bend Independent School District unanimously approved on Monday, June 17, a potential agreement with Fort Bend County to build a cemetery for the so-called “Sugar Land 95.” The members approved that Board President Jason Burdine negotiates a final version of the agreement with the county. After that, the commissioners court will vote on the agreement. That vote could take place next Tuesday, June 25, according to county attorney Roy Cordes.

The board of the Fort Bend Independent School District is scheduled to take a crucial vote at its meeting this week to build a cemetery and memorial site in Sugar Land for the remains of 95 African Americans who worked under the Texas convict lease system in the late 1800s. The group has been dubbed the “Sugar Land 95.”

The remains were discovered in February 2018 while construction crews worked on building Fort Bend ISD's James Reese Career Center and Technical Center.

In June of that year, Judge James Shoemake, of the Fort Bend County 434th District Court, gave the school district permission to exhume the remains for analysis. Experts concluded they were those of African Americans who were forced to work after the eradication of slavery in the United States, as part of the convict lease system, which started in Texas around 1867, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Currently the remains are being kept in a protected site, near where they were originally found.

The Texas Legislature passed a bill this year allowing Fort Bend County to own and operate the cemetery and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it. The passage of the bill was necessary because it allows a county of more than 500,000 residents to own and operate a cemetery, something that previous state law didn't permit.

Alvaro 'Al' Ortiz/Houston Public Media
From left to right: Texas State Rep. D.F. ‘Rick’ Miller, Texas State Rep. Ron Reynolds, U.S. Congressman Al Green and Texas State Senator Borris Miles. On June 17, 2019, they attended an event to celebrate the passage of a new state law that will allow Fort Bend County to own and operate the cemetery where the so-called Sugar Land 95 will be reinterred.

Support of elected officials

Fort Bend ISD, along with county officials and state lawmakers gathered on Monday to celebrate the new law. State Representatives Ron Reynolds and D.F. ‘Rick’ Miller, who sponsored the bill in the Texas House, attended the event along with State Senator Borris Miles and U.S. Congressman Al Green.

After the event, Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre talked about next steps toward reinterring the remains.

“Basically the agreement we are negotiating with them would involve the transfer of land and the cemetery into the county’s possession,” he said.

Dupre said the school district has changed the footprint of the technical school so there will be no construction atop the cemetery.

Asked about whether the county would pay the school district for the land, Dupre said they are “still discussing the terms of that agreement, so I’d rather get not into the details.”

Timeline for final agreement

As for a timeline, Dupre said that the final agreement would not be announced until the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court has “taken action on it, which could be anytime in the next two weeks to two months.” “We’re still negotiating many of the terms,” he added.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George also declined to talk about whether a final agreement will entail the county paying the school district for the land.

“This is all still under negotiation, so I don’t want to comment on something our lawyers are working on,” he told News 88.7.

Dupre said the land in question is about three fourths of an acre to an acre and that “it’s become even more clear during the last year that our community wants the bodies reinterred originally back in their final resting place.”

Ken DeMerchant represents Precinct 4 on the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court, and is one of the people negotiating terms with the school district.

DeMerchant told News 88.7 that all the parties agree on the main goal of reinterring the remains where they were discovered, but the current negotiation is about a “little verbiage here and there.” He declined to elaborate and didn't say either whether the county will pay the school district for the land.

However, he said that if a final agreement is reached between the county and the school district it's possible there will be a reburial ceremony and a memorial park will be built adjacent to the cemetery.

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