Fort Bend ISD has unveiled its plans for the Sugar Land 95 memorial, roughly five years after the discovery of unmarked graves on land the district had purchased for a new school.
After purchasing land for the construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center, officials found 95 unmarked graves on the property in 2018.
Researchers believe the remains are those of 94 men and one woman who were part of a state-run convict-leasing program, according to a school district report. After the abolition of slavery, many southern states began using forced labor from prisoners under brutal conditions. Black men in particular were often arrested for minor infractions or on false charges and given inflated sentences to fuel the convict-leasing system.
Local activist Reginald Moore – who died in 2020 – raised concerns that there could be unmarked graves on the property when the school district purchased the land. After the remains were uncovered, he pushed for Fort Bend ISD to properly memorialize those buried there.
During a school board meeting last month, the district shared renderings of a proposed memorial site for the 95 people buried on the school's grounds.
The entrance will have a marker from the Texas Historical Commission. In a "narrative passage," visitors will be able to read about convict-leasing and learn about the discovery of the Sugar Land 95. The memorial will also include a grove, where teachers and speakers can educate groups about the history of the site and Moore's advocacy.
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The gravesite is the central point of the site, and the school district says it plans to work with descendants to design markers once individuals buried there are identified.
The grounds will also include a reflection area with information about DNA testing, genealogical work and historical research into the identities of the deceased. A pavilion will be built on the site to host medium and large groups for educational and community events.
The memorial was designed to symbolically take visitors through the steps of a funerary process, from a wake to a celebration of life, said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, the district's Coordinator of Community and Civic Engagement.
"It’s a really transformative site that’s aligned with the very cultural, African American burial process," Olainu-Alade said.
The memorial site is projected to cost about $4 million. The school district is currently fundraising for the project, with the goal of starting work in 2025.
There has been some debate among local advocates about how to best memorialize the Sugar Land 95.
Jay Jenkins, a local attorney, co-founded the Convict Leasing and Labor Project with Moore. Jenkins has raised concerns that the name of the gravesite – the Bullhead Camp Labor Force Cemetery – is historically inaccurate. And he said he'd like to see the remains identified before Fort Bend ISD moves ahead with its plans.
"You can’t memorialize people that you don’t know who they are," he said.
Meanwhile, Marilyn Moore, Reginald Moore's widow, said she's glad to see the district moving forward with plans to commemorate the gravesite. Moore is president of the Friends of the Sugar Land 95, a group working with the school district to honor those buried at the gravesite.
Moore said the memorial provides an opportunity not only to educate students, but also adults, both locally and from other parts of the country.
"There have been people who have come to the exhibit as it is now from different parts of the United States," she said.
The new gravesite may draw even more members of the public looking to learn about the Sugar Land 95, Moore said.
"I think it’s a great idea that is not just about upgrading the cemetery," she said. "It's also about educating as well."