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Deal To Rebury “Sugar Land 95” May Be Falling Apart

Fort Bend County Judge KP George says the reinterment needs court approval, but Fort Bend ISD disputes the need for judicial oversight.

This file photo shows archaeologists working at the discovered grave sites in Sugar Land in the summer of 2018.
Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media
This file photo shows archaeologists working at the discovered grave sites in Sugar Land in 2018.

The proposed agreement in Fort Bend County for the reburial of the so-called "Sugar Land 95" is increasingly uncertain. Fort Bend County Judge KP George told News 88.7 the county and the Fort Bend Independent School District strongly disagree on how to carry out the reinterment of the remains of 95 African Americans who worked on a Sugar Land plantation under the Texas convict lease system in the late 1800s. George says the process should have court approval, while the school district contends they don't need it.

The remains were discovered in February 2018 by a contractor who was working on the construction site for Fort Bend ISD's planned James Reese Career Center and Technical Center. The new facility opened Wednesday, the start of the school year for FBISD.

The county and the school district have been negotiating an agreement for weeks by which the district would convey 10 acres of land to the county for the remains to be reburied and for a memorial site. The county would be in charge of maintaining the cemetery.

On July 11, the district announced the principle terms of the agreement, which included paying the county $1 million “toward future costs associated with reinterment and memorialization.” On July 25 the district announced plans to carry out the reinterment, but that news release omitted the $1 million announced two weeks before.

On Monday, FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre posted an online video statement saying “there is no longer a need for the district to pay the county” because the school district will carry out the reinterment and host a public memorial service.

George told News 88.7 he is upset about the district acting "unilaterally" without consulting with the county and said the negotiation is going through “a lot of difficulty.”

George said the sticking point isn’t the money, but the issue of court involvement. Attorneys advising the county say Fort Bend could be liable in potential lawsuits from descendants if the reburial is done without court approval.

“It’s about the trust and also legal liability, that is the bottom-line,” George said. “There are relatives and even today we don’t know who they are.”

George added he can't support a process over which the county has no control.

The litigation regarding the reburial is at a stalemate. Since the discovery of the remains, Judge James Shoemake, of Harris County's 434th District Court, has appointed two attorneys to oversee the reinterment process but the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas at Houston has stayed his appointments.

FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre told News 88.7 the attorneys that are advising him say the district can go ahead with the reburial. Dupre said a law the Texas Legislature passed this year allowing Fort Bend County to operate the cemetery also establishes that the school district can carry out the reinterment.

“It’s beginning to become undignified that this is becoming a long drawn out process,” Dupre said. “We believe the court process would make it go even longer.”

In response to George's concern about potential lawsuits, Dupre said FBISD has “multiple attorneys telling us that we are in strong legal footing.”

As for the financial aspect of the process, Dupre said the district will pay for the reburial and a memorial service. Additionally, FBISD is considering providing money toward the cost of DNA testing of the remains.

The superintendent also denied some claims that the district has built a part of the technical center over the site where the remains were originally discovered, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. “Fort Bend ISD did not build on and does not intend to build on any portion or part of the area that has been designated as a historic cemetery,” Dupre said in his online video statement. He said each individual will be reburied in the original space from where they were exhumed.

In his interview with News 88.7, Dupre said the cemetery is fully fenced and “for anyone to say that they have photographic proof or any other evidence that we’ve built on the cemetery is simply false.”

The FBISD school board plans to vote on the reburial plan at its September 23 meeting. If it's approved, Dupre said the reburial could start 60 to 90 days after the approval of the contract.

This June 17, 2019, file photo shows Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds (center) during an event held in Sugar Land.
Alvaro 'Al' Ortiz/Houston Public Media)
This June 17, 2019, file photo shows Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds (center) during an event held in Sugar Land.

The reinterment of the remains and the planned memorial site has generated strong support from community members and elected officials, including Texas State Representatives Ron Reynolds and D.F. ‘Rick' Miller, who jointly filed the bill in the state legislature to allow the county to operate the cemetery, and U.S. Representative Al Green. District Attorney Brian Middleton, the first African American to hold that position in Fort Bend County, is also in favor of an agreement for the reinterment.

In addition, the issue has gained traction on Twitter with the hashtag #SugarLand95 since the discovery in February 2018.

The discovery has also had repercussions for Fort Bend ISD's curriculum. The district will have a class about the Texas convict lease system starting this school year.