Fort Bend

Fort Bend ISD to build elementary school on former prison farm lands, sparking concerns of unmarked gravesite

Advocates are worried the Harlem Prison Farm cemetery could be located on the site of a new school planned for Richmond’s Harvest Green community.

Land that Fort Bend ISD is planning on buying to build a new elementary school. Some are concerned that it could also be a gravesite for prison farmland, similar to that of the Sugar Land 95.
Natalie Weber/Houston Public Media
Land that Fort Bend ISD is planning on buying to build a new elementary school. Some are concerned that it could also be a gravesite for prison farmland, similar to that of the Sugar Land 95.

Fort Bend ISD is planning to build a new elementary school on former prison farmland, sparking concerns among local activists that the land could contain an unmarked cemetery.

Advocates are worried the Harlem Prison Farm cemetery could be located on the site of a new school planned for Richmond's Harvest Green community.

In 2018, the school district discovered 95 unmarked graves during the construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. The remains were believed to include 94 men and one woman – known as the Sugar Land 95 – who were forced to work under a practice known as convict leasing.

After slavery was abolished, many southern states began relying on the practice for free labor, forcing prisoners to work on brutal and inhumane conditions. The system targeted Black men in particular, who were often arrested on false or minor charges and given inflated sentences.

Reginald Moore, a local activist who died in 2020, raised concerns that there could be graves on the Reese Center property before the district ultimately discovered the remains. Some activists are worried that they could see a repeat of the situation with the school district's most recent purchase.

Jay Jenkins is President of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, which he co-founded with Moore. Jenkins said he feels the school district has not been transparent about its latest purchase.

"There was no public discussion," he said. "There was no conversation about the history of the land."

Steve Bassett, the district's deputy superintendent, said Fort Bend ISD was aware it was purchasing former prison farmland.

Johnson Development, which sold the land to the school district, hired a firm to conduct an archeological survey before the district finalized its purchase. The firm dug 27 trenches, including an 820-foot trench, and 34 "deep holes" as part of its survey, according to the school district.

The school district has also hired its own firm to do archeological surveys. The firm will submit its survey findings to the Texas Historical Commission for approval before construction begins.

"We're gonna do what we can to follow the rules and follow the processes to ensure that we're not missing anything," Bassett said.

Marilyn Moore, Reginald Moore's widow, has been working with the school district as president of the Friends of the Sugar Land 95 to help memorialize those buried at the Reese Center property. The district recently announced plans for a $4 million memorial site.

Moore said she hopes the school district does "their due diligence and beyond" to make sure there's not graves on the land for the new elementary school.

"I just hope they do the right thing," she said, "That there's not a repeat."