I SEE U, Episode 46: Sugar Land Not So Sweet

Social Studies Super Hero, Chassidy Olainu-Alade, serves as our I SEE U Tour Guide of ‘Sugar Land 95,’ a new exhibit that highlights a new form of slavery the city of Sugar Land, a popular Houston-area suburb, may not be so proud of

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Convict leasing, a gruesome practice that started in 1867, was highly profitable for states across the South and for the families who owned plantations. It was a time when Sugar Land, Texas was known to carry a network of sugar cane farms and state-sanctioned labor camps after the abolition of slavery. It also wasn’t uncommon for Black men to be arrested for often times bogus or trumped up charges, so that plantation owners could build a solid workforce of leased laborers. But in February of 2018 at a construction site during excavation, human bones were discovered. Later, an investigation resulted in 95 African-American bodies buried in unmarked plywood coffins, ushering in the country’s first-ever convict labor camp cemetery to be analyzed and studied. Join us as I SEE U takes a “FEEL” trip to Fort Bend County and explores a recently opened educational exhibit called, “Sugar Land 95.” Community and Civic Engagement Coordinator, Chassidy Olainu-Alade, guides host Eddie Robinson on a tour of the memorialization site as well as provides riveting and emotional detail of yet another piece of hidden history that social studies textbooks across America failed to include.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: Four years ago, the remains of 95 African Americans were found while a construction crew was building a school in Sugar Land, Texas. Archaeologists determined that these black bodies were part of a new form of slavery that occurred after emancipation. A brutal, state sanctioned practice known as convict leasing.

[00:00:23] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: You can’t really talk about convict labor without talking about how did they… Become victims of the convict labor system, but then you also have to talk about why.

[00:00:34] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned as we take you on a field trip. That’s feel Our I SEE U production team visits the recently opened educational exhibit called Sugar Land95 We’ll be joined by our tour guide, social studies superhero, ChassidyOlainu-Alade. Oh yeah, I feel you, we hear you, I SEE U.

[00:01:19] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. The Fort Bend Independent School District has finally opened to the public a new exhibit and cemetery that honors 95 individuals whose remains were discovered on school district property.

[00:01:38] Eddie Robinson: It’s believed that these people were all part of the Texas convict leasing system that started as early as 1867. Now keep in mind, this was after the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. These remains were found by accident four years ago. While the district was planning to build a new career center for its students.

[00:02:01] Eddie Robinson: And this discovery is huge, because it marked the first confirmed prison cemetery for the convict leasing system. A practice in which southern states leased prisoners to build railroads, mine coal, as well as farm on cotton and sugar plantations. These labor camps were state sanctioned. Prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, dangerous, and oftentimes deadly working conditions.

[00:02:32] Eddie Robinson: This new exhibit, which recently opened, also honors a Sugar Land resident and advocate by the name of Reginald Moore. He even warned officials at Fort Bend ISD years earlier that they would be building on the graves of prisoners.

[00:02:48] Reginald Moore: I believe there’s possibly graves all out throughout the 2000 some acres they have and the acreage that was sold prior to 03 that’s out there to part of that 50 some thousand acres.

[00:03:01] Reginald Moore: They had probably scattered sites out there now of graves and camps that we feel like this out there.

[00:03:08] Eddie Robinson: And sure enough, the remains of 94 men and one woman were found all We’re black, but questions remain. Are there more bodies? And will there be efforts in place to locate them so that their stories won’t remain buried?

[00:03:29] Eddie Robinson: I SEE U as we take you on a field trip that’s F E E L. With myself along with our I SEE U production team who all ventured out to Sugar Land, Texas to the freshly designed building known as the F B I S D James C. Reese Career and Technical Center. That’s where we meet up with our Sugar Land 95 tour guide Chassidy Olainu-Alade. She welcomes us with a quick description of how all of this started, exactly where we were standing.

[00:04:02] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: It was upon the beginning of construction, Mr. Moore had been a long time advocate. Reginald Moore. But he was insisted upon having archaeologists out here. And they essentially said, you know, we nudged the district to have an archaeological team on site in the event of.

[00:04:22] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so they started in October from this side of the building and we’re moving sort of in this direction. And when they got to the point of the building where we’re going to go is when they found the first remains in February 2018.

[00:04:39] Eddie Robinson: For those who may not be familiar with Reginald Moore, who’s this gentleman?

[00:04:44] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Mr. Reginald Moore is a long time Houstonian resident of Fort Bend. He worked at the Jester Unit in the 80s, and that’s what kind of sparked his interest in the Texas criminal justice system, particularly the prison labor system, because he saw it in action in the 80s. And that is what fueled his interest and motivated him to become, essentially, we call him a local historian.

[00:05:08] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: But then his love for history translated into activism, because he just knew. Like when you know, you know, he just knew that there was something about this particular piece of land and he had attended countless city council meetings, school board meetings, even prior to like all of the movement in and on this property.

[00:05:30] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: He was saying like, I think there’s something there. And so he was here during the discovery. And unfortunately, in 2020, he passed away.

[00:05:42] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re on location in Sugar Land, Texas, exploring a site exhibit known as Sugar Land 95. This is a very beautiful building. It’s huge, I didn’t realize it.

[00:05:58] Eddie Robinson: As we proceed to walk the corridor of this brand new facility, I can’t help but imagine what remarkable opportunities that exist for today’s youth of color. Over a hundred years earlier, young people of color were being brutally tortured and forced into labor, and their human remains were found at this very site.

[00:06:20] Eddie Robinson: Chassidy, our tour guide, points out highlights of the facility. And it’s remarkable. A modern industrial interior design, audio, video, communications, studios, a culinary arts section, an automotive training area. I mean, this career center was amazing.

[00:06:38] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: If they complete the full course of their studies here, they have not only a high school diploma but an industry certification.

[00:06:47] Eddie Robinson: But at the very end of the corridor, we approach the reason for our visit. The Sugar Land 95 exhibit. Housed in the rear corner of the building, a beautifully lit, Modestly constructed and well organized exhibit that features two major panel displays all filled with texts, visuals, graphics, relics, nails, glass shards, all on display.

[00:07:13] Eddie Robinson: Also helping to bring in some natural light, an enthralling stained glass panel with sugar cane stalks etched in the glass with what looks to be birds. Flying miraculously out of the stalks.

[00:07:27] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: It looks like sugarcane is right in front of the window as though there was sugarcane in front of the building.

[00:07:34] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: We didn’t know that that was going to happen. Then you also see 94 birds cascading into the heavens and we have one Texas monarch butterfly who are known to prance around this grassy area to represent the one female remain. Who is laid to rest.

[00:07:54] Eddie Robinson: As we step up to the exhibit, it dawned on me there was absolutely nothing in my social studies textbooks in Mississippi that mentioned anything about this history.

[00:08:07] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So I was a social studies teacher. I moved here in 2006. And this part of history was not in any textbook or curriculum that I ever taught for the first decade of my career as a social studies educator. So it was a learning experience for me as well.

[00:08:26] Eddie Robinson: Chassidy begins our exhibit tour by describing how the very first human remains were discovered.

[00:08:33] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: We know that the first bone was found in February, February 19, 2018. When the bone was first sent off, it came back that it was like 98 or 99 percent not human, but it was our chief operations officer, Oscar Perez, who was like, uh, 98 percent isn’t good enough. Let’s do a second analysis. And it was sent off for a second analysis and came back 100 percent conclusive that it was human.

[00:09:02] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So it was that, that extra set of due diligence that not only on Oscar’s part, but on the backhoe operator who said, wait a minute. Wait a second. That looks like a bone that this even was a thing. I always like to say it was advantageous that it was a, a public entity and a school district who found what they found.

[00:09:27] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Cause I can’t necessarily in good faith say that it was, if it was private development, that that would have happened. So we like to say it was an opportunity that we had to find it. And so this is what the site looked like. You can see that the landscape was. It’s totally broken up. They dug, uh, about eight foot deep into the ground in some places.

[00:09:50] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So that the area where the cemetery lies was essentially a huge pit, uh, in the earth. And apparently for folks who are out there, it was about 10 to 15 degrees hotter. In the ground than it was on the surface. So can you, you can just imagine the conditions that they found these remains in. Once they started digging, I remember watching the the news. It was like four remains, nine more remains. And they went for Easter break and they came back and they were like 25, right? Yes. And it just, the number just kept growing and growing. So in total, we now know collectively there were 95, 94 men and one presumed female laid to rest in the cemetery.

[00:10:34] Eddie Robinson: I want to find out your, like, feelings. You know, what did, when you first heard that there would be remains of so called alleged prisoners, what came into your mind from the very beginning that you heard the news?

[00:10:48] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Shock, like everyone else. I mean, I remember being at home, watching it on the news and I my goodness.

[00:10:54] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Like that’s here. Wait, that’s important. Oh, wait, like that’s in my school district. Wait, that’s like right by my house. And I was like prison convict laborers. And then I started to think about why don’t I know about this? And I jogged my memory. I mean, I have a master’s degree in history. And I’m like, and I studied the American South.

[00:11:14] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I’m like, why haven’t I learned about this? I feel like, like I need a reimbursement for some coursework. And, um, I was just puzzled. And so I was shocked. I was upset because I was like, why didn’t I, I know this. And then I was motivated as a teacher in me. You got to make sure people know about this.

[00:11:36] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I’m still kind of on that course. I don’t know if you’ve ever met social studies teachers, but we’re not like regular teachers. We are charged with action and it’s more than just rote memorization of facts. Social studies teachers go into social studies most times because they want to like save the world.

[00:12:02] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: It’s like you, you know the power that history has on the face. future, you know, the power that you have as an adult on getting kids to think critically about things. And so that’s just me. I’ve always, I’ve always been a social studies educator since I was little, even in summers at my grandma’s house with all my cousins around, I’d be teaching them lessons, right?

[00:12:25] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I loved history. my entire life. And so how did I get involved with this? Universal timing. I was in the right place at the right time for my call to action to be sparked. I was the social studies coordinator when this happened. And when the discovery took place, I was like everybody else watching it on the news, ear hustling, like what’s going on with that?

[00:12:49] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I said, well, I’m not out there with the archeologist. I don’t really have any stake in this project, but as the social studies coordinator. What are we going to do about this? Cause the history, once we knew without a certain of doubt what the site was, now mind you people, Mr. Moore knew in his heart of hearts when they found the discovery, of course, it was like, Oh, this must’ve been what he’s talking about, but it took about two years for research archival studies to really substantiate those claims.

[00:13:25] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so while the research was going on, I tried to stay ahead of the research. So once it was like somewhat conclusive, when that news came out and it was like thought to be enslaved or convict laborers, I was like, Hmm, I kind of, with my team of social studies coordinators, you were like, you know, cause social studies teachers want to save the world.

[00:13:46] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So we were like, what are we gonna do? We gotta teach about this. And they were like, well, yeah. And so we started working on plans for how the district was going to teach our students and our community about this magnificent discovery that we had. So that’s how I got involved. Putting plans in place for curriculum, developing lessons, and when the time came, and the district was like, we’re ready to develop curriculum, we’re like, oh, we already have it.

[00:14:16] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, our special field trip continues, as our I SEE U production team visits the Sugar Land95 exhibit. An historic cemetery where 95 African Americans were buried. They were believed to have been part of a convict leasing program that began in the late 1800s. We’ll share more details about what was found in the dig.

[00:14:46] Eddie Robinson: And we’ll also share profiles of the convicts and tell you their names. Plus, the moment of the tour that really got me and touched my heart. I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U . Be right back.

[00:15:09] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:15:41] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U . I’m Eddie Robinson and our production team is on a field trip. That’s F E E L. And we’re being led on a tour of an exhibit by Fort Bend ISDs, social studies, supervisor, coordinator, Chassidy Olainu-Alade. Chassidy is about to describe for us the first panel of images and information that’s on display for the new Sugar Land 95 exhibit, located in Sugar Land, Texas, about 30 miles southwest of Houston. We continue.

[00:16:15] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: My name is Chassidy Olainu-Alade. I am the coordinator of community and civic engagement for Fort Bend ISD. Long story short, I’m an educator. A history, social studies educator. Um, and this is the Sugar Land 95 exhibit. Typically when, when folks come to the exhibit tour, we start them out in the corner, over here, with a little bit of background.

[00:16:38] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So the first set of images essentially is the site when they first started construction. October 2017, and sort of what the site looked like. Lots of heavy machinery. And that’s actually, the picture down below is the lead archaeologist. here during that time. Upon that discovery launched almost a two, two and a half year long scavenger hunt of research.

[00:17:05] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so I like to show this image particularly to those who say, well, how do you know that that’s what it, what it was? And students to show them that research doesn’t just happen with one resource. You have to use a variety of research resources. So we show them this because, yes, the exhumation provided us with the remains.

[00:17:28] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Um, but it also gave us artifacts. So all of the artifacts that you see in these cases were from the dig. They’re not replicas, they’re not on loan from another site. They were their artifacts found in the dig site. And artifacts are extremely important because they corroborate the other sources to confirm what you have.

[00:17:51] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so we have the artifacts, we have the bio forensic studies of the remains that can tell us their ages, their ethnicity, their living conditions, but also their conditions upon death. It’s critically important, the ongoing DNA studies that are continuously going on. I’ll talk to you a little bit about that soon.

[00:18:16] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And then archives as a social studies teacher, I like the archives because that’s like the pen hits the paper a hundred years ago. So the archives are critically important because they tell us the story of the land. We’re able to track the usage of the land. And who the land owners were, what they were engaged in, how many folks worked here, because all of those records were kept.

[00:18:42] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so the archives are critically important because although this is a lesser known point in history, it’s all there. Everything is there. You just have to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Because this is all about the forensics and the kids say, what is that? I’m like, it’s what we know based off of bones and dirt.

[00:19:00] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And then they, you know, they get excited because we can tell so much by bones and dirt. So this particular part of the exhibit is designed to give people an understanding of who were the people who were found. And how are we working to go, like this says, from numbers to names. And what sort of work is that going to entail?

[00:19:26] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: To get us from numbers to names. So we, we give them a lot of the exhumation details. We show the cemetery plot so they can understand that this was on the banks of a bayou. Um, it was not the place where you were having a picnic. This essentially was lowlands, marshlands, a dumping ground, so to speak. And so we show them the cemetery layout before taking them out to the cemetery so they can have sort of a visual spatial understanding of the site.

[00:20:00] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And we explain to them that the cemetery view is a timeline also because we know based off of dirt. And artifacts that this portion of the cemetery is the eldest part of the cemetery. And we know that, A, because of the dirt. And because of the nails. So if you look in the case, there are nails at the top that are well preserved.

[00:20:29] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: They’re longer. They have square heads. And those nails correlate back to pre industrialization when blacksmiths were actually making nails by hand. Um, and so those square head nails were found in the eldest portion of the cemetery. Whereas as you see time passing by, we go from using those durable nails to machine made smaller, uh, nails that decomposed to a degree over time.

[00:21:02] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so we kind of tell, tell that story. The center of the cemetery gives you that sort of discombobulated feeling where there’s really no East West configuration, which means there was no sort of Christian reverence given upon burial. And then the last part of the cemetery, we have, again, some uniformity and how folks are buried, which, you know, there’s, there’s the theory that this part.

[00:21:31] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Of history coincided with flood. We see that this is actually the banks of the bayou, where that dotted line is. And so with flood, you know, comes mosquito borne illness. So we, there could have been an incident where there were multiple individuals either dying in close proximity of time or being buried in close proximity of time.

[00:21:50] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So, although their graves were not marked, you would still have some, uh, marking or some relic that someone was buried. in the recent past. So the wood had decomposed in many of the grave shafts. The wood was decomposed. The clothing, in many cases, was decomposed. Buttons remained and nails.

[00:22:16] Eddie Robinson: Nails? What would they have been used for?

[00:22:23] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: To shut the coffin.

[00:22:25] Eddie Robinson: Okay. So, young is 14 years old from what i…

[00:22:29] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: According to the human record. When I’m explaining this to students, I say there’s the historical record, which is that artifacts, the archives, the paper, and then there’s the human record. And that’s what we refer to the individuals who are buried. So according to the human record, meaning the skeletal remains, the youngest is about 14.

[00:22:49] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: According to the historical record, the youngest is 16. Mr. William Nash, who was a cook. And, you know, statistically, the median age range of these men was between 19 and 24, with the average age of death at 25. So in our final report of findings, there’s a portion of it called the roster of the deceased.

[00:23:16] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And that roster was actually compiled through Um, combing through thousands of prison, they’re called prison cards, intake cards with the Texas criminal justice system. Those have all been archived in like different databases, including like ancestry. com. And so an archivist literally dedicated her time and her life combing through those resources, looking for individuals who their prison intake at Huntsville showed that they were.

[00:23:47] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: They were sent to work in this property, Ellis Camp 1, Ellis Camp 2, later again, Ellis Camp 1, then Imperial Camp, and they died while here. So they’re looking for certain descriptors on their prison card. A, they were arrested, B, where they were sent, and C, if they died. And so what was extracted from that essential deep dive was 72 names of individuals.

[00:24:15] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Who their prison records indicated just such that they were arrested sentenced here and died while on this property and students go to this and I don’t tell them much But they start to come up with some of their own conclusions. For example, they all notice like wow, these are young people Right, but then when they start If you look at the notes, so the roster has 17 indicators, of course, name, age, county of origin, where you got arrested, what was your, your crime, how long was your sentence, and then there’s the notes.

[00:24:53] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And the notes are super powerful. Because if you go to the notes, if you isolate any chunk… On that, on that graph, you can see in the notes, there’s like, they’re passing away within days or weeks or months of being here. And that’s what students immediately gravitate to. Like, wow, this must have been a really bad place to be because people don’t live very long once they get here.

[00:25:18] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And then they immediately pan over to see, well, how did they die? And you’ll see on the list, pneumonia and heat stroke are two of the most common causes of death. And so then I tell the kids, what does that mean? If people are passing away from pneumonia and heat stroke? And they say, well, they must have just been exposed to the elements, right?

[00:25:38] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so, I like the roster as a, as a tool that we can use to engage students. To learn and understand this. And then it leads us into the conversation around, how did these people, this age, this demographic, End up here, and then we can have that conversation that ties back to the 13th amendment. The fact that most of them are listed as just laborers.

[00:26:02] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: I mean, if you had a job, your job was listed. If you were a laborer, it means you were able to do work. You might not have been doing it. And then they say, Oh, that was vagrancy, right? And so we start to see some connections in that.

[00:26:21] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. As we’re on a field trip out in Sugar Land, Texas, our production team is exploring the new exhibit known as Sugar Land 95. It’s the site where the human remains of 95 Black workers were discovered. They were a part of a new form of slavery known as the convict leasing system.

[00:26:42] Eddie Robinson: At this moment, our tour guide, Chassidy, is identifying some of the convicts. You can tell just by quickly reading some of the notes that are on display, that many of these prisoners died shortly after they arrived on the labor camp. Listed causes of death included malaria, pneumonia, Heart diseases, clots, heat strokes, and stomach ailments.

[00:27:05] Eddie Robinson: I even noticed one convict, based on the notes, had experienced a total of 60 lashes, from what I could have only guessed would have been from a whip, and suffered at least three gunshot wounds. As I continued to listen to Chassidy, I couldn’t help but get caught up emotionally by the young prisoner that Chassidy briefly mentioned.

[00:27:26] Eddie Robinson: A 16 year old listed on the panel of laborers whose name was William Nash. He was 5’4 weighed 151 pounds, and was listed as a cook from Georgia. He was slated to serve four years for theft of property valued at over $20. He died from a traumatic brain injury or brain congestion. He had scars on his forehead and on his left temple as well as other parts of his body.

[00:27:55] Eddie Robinson: Fingers on both hands were also disfigured. 16 years old, a person the age of my little cousin in North Houston, forced into labor, and having to die this way. And I just glanced up and read other notes from different convicts. Peter Brown, age 23. A Texan, whose left eye was totally removed, with his own eyelid closed over it.

[00:28:20] Eddie Robinson: 18 year old Scott West, with scars on his forehead, shoulder blade, and groin. Killed while attempting to escape, according to the notes. 39 year old Ben Franklin, whose toes were cut off of both feet. With scars and burn mark, as one historian put it, convict leasing was as brutal in a social sense, but fiendishly rational in an economic sense.

[00:28:48] Eddie Robinson: When one Black worker died, then that worker simply was replaced by another convict.

[00:29:03] Eddie Robinson: Has there been any discussion as relates to many of these convicts based on trumped up charges?

[00:29:11] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Right. Oh yeah. I mean, you can’t really talk about convict labor. Particularly in this historical context without understanding that this system was birthed following the emancipation of slavery as a direct result of the 13th amendment and the subsequent Black Codes that were passed.

[00:29:30] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So in Texas, you know, the 13th amendment was passed nationally in 1865. Part of reconstruction conditions were that states were supposed to also ratify the 13th amendment. Well, Texas refused to. ratify the 13th amendment and in the constitution of 1866 they actually devised the Texas Black Codes. And so it was those Black Codes that essentially would create the, the, the system of laws or even the social system, right?

[00:30:00] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: That would criminalize behaviors of the newly freed people. So you can’t really talk about convict labor as it existed during this time period without, without talking about how did they become victims of the convict labor system, but then you also have to talk about why. And so then we say, well, why, why was this a thing?

[00:30:22] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I think any, any. If any person who has any sort of historical understanding of the Civil War and the causes of the Civil War and what the Civil War then did to the Southern structure, you would say, well, wait, that does make sense. And it’s almost usually light bulbs go off in people’s brains because no one essentially really thinks about the fact that after the Civil War, yes, we emancipated 4 million people, but then what?

[00:30:50] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: But then what? And so when you start to understand, like, just because slavery was outlawed, that doesn’t mean that agriculture is going to go away. Doesn’t mean that big farms are going to stop functioning. There’s still going to, there’s still a need for a work force. Um, and the crops still exist, that then you really start to see the nods of the head and the clear understanding.

[00:31:16] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And then when you go to the historical side of the exhibit, and you’re looking at… Those bills of sale are the contracts for the landowner saying I’ll give you five dollars for all the able bodied convicts in Fort Bend County to go and work on this farm It makes it makes a lot more sense and it helps clear up a lot of historical misconceptions.

[00:31:40] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So most of them Our agricultural, uh, relics. So at the top, of course, this is the bottom part of an Aggie. The wood would have deteriorated. It would have had a long wooden rod, such as you can see in that bottom picture. We have here some medicine bottles, alcohol bottles. This was a spoke. chain that essentially would have been pounded into the ground and affixed to it would have been a chain of individuals.

[00:32:22] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So it would have been used to hold the line in a row. Um, they weren’t able to, so chain gang labor. My favorite artifact It’s actually in the case over there. It’s a wooden guy that was actually found in between grave shafts. Um, I particularly am fond of that wooden die because it represents, when you think of people playing a game of dice, you think joy, because it’s, it’s a moment of light hearted life.

[00:33:01] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so when we think of just how young these men were, I don’t know if After working a 20 hour shift, they had time to have a moment of joy. Or if someone had carried that with them from their home, and that was the one thing that maybe reminded them of joy. And so I really, really am fond of that wooden die.

[00:33:46] Eddie Robinson: Coming up we continue our field trip with our tour guide Chassidy Olainu-Alade a lot a we’re exploring the Sugar Land95 exhibit in Sugarland, Texas. We head out from the indoor exhibit to the outdoor cemetery where 95 African americans were reinterred to their final resting place, but not without controversy I’m Eddie Robinson I SEE U.

[00:34:13] Eddie Robinson: The final segment of our tour of an unsweet history of Sugar Land. Right after these messages.

[00:34:35] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:35:07] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. As we continue our tour of the Sugar Land 95 exhibit, located in one of the fastest growing suburbs of Houston, Sugar Land, Texas. Chassidy Olainu-Alade, is our tour guide. And as she guides us outside to the historic cemetery where these

[00:35:27] Eddie Robinson: individuals now lay to rest, I mention to Chassidy that I could recall so much debate and controversy that had erupted once all the remains had been found.

[00:35:37] Eddie Robinson: The question of where those remains would be reinterred… Became a huge concern.

[00:35:45] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: This project is not shy of any controversy. Every step of the way, there is always multiple perspectives and multiple. points of view every step of the way and so I’m not surprised when met with a counter argument or a different perspective because it’s existed since the very beginning of this it existed before the discovery down to the land purchase to the construction so it’s this it’s the nature of this particular project I think there’s There’s a beauty to having those multiple perspectives, because for me, as the leader of this work, it, it continuously kind of puts you back in, in line, right?

[00:36:35] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And it holds you accountable to making sure that you actually hear all of the voices and that the work that we’re doing is done in good faith. And so sometimes the controversy is controversy, but a lot of times there’s always pieces of it that you can pull out or reflect upon and make adjustments as you go.

[00:36:54] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And with that, our team grabbed our microphone and proceeded to the outdoor cemetery. Do y’all want to go outside? Let me get my key.

[00:37:03] Eddie Robinson: Where 95 african americans who worked relentlessly in the scorching texas heat were buried. These harvesters gave their lives under brutal and horrific conditions to sugar plantation owners that built up fortunes for their families.

[00:37:20] Eddie Robinson: We continue our tour and learn more history about the ownership of the land. And how the state of Texas began leasing inmates to private enterprises outside of prisons.

[00:37:36] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: When I come out here, I like to give people a 360 degree tour of Sugar Land in five minutes. And they say, how are you going to do that?

[00:37:45] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And there’s so much history right here that spurs off of this cemetery. And I’m going to start here, pointing north of where I’m standing. You’ll see the water tower that’s blinking. The Water Tower is where the Sugar Land, uh, Imperial Sugar Factory is. You can’t tell this story of convict labor without…

[00:38:08] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Telling the other half of the story, which is who owned the land and who commissioned the work, right? And so we know that the property we stand on here, we have the record of its transfer from post Civil War being part of the James Freeman plantation. We know that the earliest part of that cemetery most likely coincides of when Freeman owned the farm.

[00:38:37] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Um, Freeman then sells the land to Littleberry Ellis, who amasses over 5, 400 acres of land, essentially reestablishing the Hodges League. If you studied that old Texas history, the leagues, the old 300, right? Alexander Hodges was one of those founders. And so this 5, 400 acres or so of land. He, he amasses it and renames it Sir Tarsha Plantation, mind you, post Civil War.

[00:39:05] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And so Ellis, his next door neighbor, literally the, the, the train track was critical to Ellis property because Walker Station Rail Depot was on it. That’s the depot where the cane comes in and out. Next door neighbors, where that blinking light is, was Edward Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham had about 12, 500 acres of what was once the Sugar Land Plantation.

[00:39:29] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So two next door neighbors, one with the refinery, one with the rail depot. They’re owning prime real estate along the Brazos River, cultivating sugar cane. Post civil war. Now, mind you, convict leasing started in Texas as early as 1867. We know that Mr. Freeman had one of the first leases in the state. And so when Ellison Cunningham sort of come into the fold.

[00:39:54] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: The state had been canceled its first leases and then tried to resume. That was ineffective. So they essentially, we call it RFP or they put out a bid, right? And Ellison Cunningham both submit independent bids, but are accepted as joint operators. So now you have two men next door neighbors, one with the depot, one with the refinery.

[00:40:18] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: About 20, 000 acres of sugarcane farming land who now own and operate the Texas prison system. And so it was under their watch that the convict leasing system was, literally they worked out all the kinks in the five years that they owned it. They were so prosperous that the state actually canceled their lease after five years and resumed it under them.

[00:40:43] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: But Ellis and Cunningham were still able to lease convicts from the state. We know that once the Ellis family sold the property to the state, the state, then this area was converted into the Imperial state prison farm and then Cunningham financial woes. He, uh, all the records say that he was a shrewd businessman.

[00:41:03] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: He was, uh, no one really wanted to work even as hired labor. They refer to, uh, Cunningham’s, you know, properties as the hell hole on the Brazos. So he essentially went belly up and private investors, Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Kempner, purchased the property and then created the Imperial Sugar Company.

[00:41:25] Eddie Robinson: As our team looks out across the memorialization site, we notice the perimeter fencing and that inside that fencing… There were black gravestones on the ground that had been installed to officially mark the exact location of each grave that had been found during the exhumation. A question was raised during the tour that related to why the bodies of these prisoners after they had died weren’t delivered to family members.

[00:41:53] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: There’s only one record that was found in the Senate investigations leading up to this being abolished, right? Um, and it’s actually on the board. It’s actually part of the rationale how the cemetery got the name of Bullhead Camp. Because it talked about a bullhead camp and a labor force, right? Um, knowing that.

[00:42:19] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: This cemetery wasn’t marked. It didn’t have a name, right? But the name Bullhead is more of a tribute to A. The potentially upwards of a thousand people working in and around this, this area, knowing as, as what he said, this was a migrant workforce, right? Um, but then also it’s juxtaposition along the banks of the bayou.

[00:42:39] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: But in that Senate investigation, a guard actually says, never known to call a family, just bury them in a pine box made by the prisoners, right? And so, not only do we have the historical wondering of, did people even know that their family members were arrested and sent here? But then they also didn’t know that they died.

[00:43:03] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And the cemetery was unmarked.

[00:43:05] Eddie Robinson: Historians say that more than 3, 500 prisoners died between the start of convict leasing in 1867 and when it ended around 1912. Imagine what would have happened if this discovery had not taken place. Imagine what would have happened without the persistence of Fort Bend County resident, Reginald Moore, who dedicated his life to bringing awareness to convict leasing at that site and emphasizing the cultural significance of Sugar Land 95.

[00:43:38] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: I think, had Mr. Moore not literally have been out here pacing. Yeah. He put a…

[00:43:44] Eddie Robinson: Because he warned people like earlier. Years and years and years.

[00:43:47] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Oh yeah. And he put another layer of quality assurance on this thing. Right? Because he was literally overseeing. the whole operation. And so you can’t really tell the story without infusing it with the efforts of Mr. Moore. Because had it not been for him, you know, um, who knows?

[00:44:18] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U , I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re on a field trip with our tour guide, Chassidy Olainu-Alade, as our production team explores the Sugar Land 95 exhibit. As we make our way back indoors, Chassidy continues our descriptive tour and provides an explanation that of the 95 bodies that were found, only 72 names have been identified thus far.

[00:44:44] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So, if you read on the panel, we talk about the research that’s ongoing to identify the individuals with the hopes of being able to make some matches. With the, the 72 names, with the 95 remains, that has not occurred yet, and that’s a long process. So the work is really kind of twofold. You have the D N A research and the genealogical studies.

[00:45:13] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Those two have to go side by side to support one another. And so the researchers on this project, uh, the principal research group, An independent group of researchers who were granted a permit to engage in this study. And so they were strategic in how they were running the samples with a hope of being able to have some, a higher degree of certainty over who some folks are.

[00:45:39] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And I like to give the example of a gentleman named Sebi Frosch, who has a vignette in the final report. He was born an enslaved person in Georgia on the sea islands, sold to Texas, got his freedom, was a free man for quite some time, but then was arrested. And Mr. Sebi Frosch was 60 years old, according to his criminal record.

[00:46:06] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: He died as a result of a leg amputation, and his leg also had gunshot wounds, and he said he escaped and was recaptured. So, you get sort of the whole story of Mr. Frosch who was arrested for theft. Well, we know that there’s an individual who is laid to rest, who aged about 60 years old. who had gunshot wounds in his leg.

[00:46:34] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Literally the bio forensic archeologist was able to place bullets in the wound. And that same leg was then amputated. So the DNA work then followed by genealogical studies could give us a match on that individual where we’re talking about roughly going into five years. to be able to understand one person.

[00:47:00] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So it’s a long process, um, but it’s an important process that everyone is committed to seeing through.

[00:47:07] Eddie Robinson: What other roadblocks do you see moving forward with this particular exhibit?

[00:47:14] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: A, funding. Huge roadblock. As a public school district, we are limited in what we can legally and legitimately spend money on and for and just how much and this project, just the discovery alone and the studies that ensued and redirection of a building and cost a lot of money. Taxpayer money. And taxpayers look all different kind of shapes, sizes, ways. They have different viewpoints on what money should be spent on and for.

[00:47:55] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: So huge roadblock is money. Even with the outdoor area, we’re going to need to raise a lot of money to get it done. The DNA, it’s been four years. They’ve only raised enough money to do about 12 percent of the analysis. Money is the major roadblock. If I had to say another obstacle, It’s this, If you go left, Someone will want you to go right.

[00:48:24] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: And if you go right, They’ll want you to go right er. Right? Um, and so, It’s navigating that, Not necessarily being Frightened by it, Or shaken, But being able to hear it. Reflect and say, you know what? That’s a point point taken and you keep moving. It’s, it’s having enough strength to keep pushing forward.

[00:48:54] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Even when there’s people saying no, this isn’t the right thing to do. You should have done that. You should do this next. It’s having to navigate all of that. But keeping your eyes on the prize. Which is to ultimately get to a point where we properly memorialize these individuals.

[00:49:18] Eddie Robinson: In your four years of involvement as a social studies superhero, what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

[00:49:35] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: That teachers… Are the single most important group of people in a community. And that I’m a teacher. And so I don’t toot titles or fancy placements. I always go back to I’m a teacher. And at any moment, I could go back to being a teacher. I don’t think I ever stopped being a teacher. And I learned that about myself.

[00:50:05] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Because when I left the classroom to get into administration, you kind of lose some of that, right? Like, you’re on the other side of things. But this, I was like, the points in my work that I go home the happiest, I feel the most fed, And that I’m the most proud, not only of myself, but my school district. Is when I get to teach other people.

[00:50:30] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: Like, I look forward to these exhibit tours. I’ll stop everything to make sure I can get to a tour.

[00:50:37] Eddie Robinson: And is there anything that has, that still surprises you? As you were doing your research yourself, learning about all this. What really surprised you the most?

[00:50:45] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: This is what surprised me and it still surprises me every day and it’s over a new passion that I’ve developed.

[00:50:53] Chassidy Olainu-Alade: It’s like, where is the Black history in Fort Bend County? Now knowing like Fort Bend had one of the largest enslaved populations pre war, largest free populations post war, where is it? Where is it? Like, I stay up at night trying to figure out. What is the history of this place that I call home? I’ve been here for 17 years.

[00:51:23] Eddie Robinson: We thank Chasity in Fort Bend ISD for allowing I SEE U to pay a visit to the Sugar Land 95 exhibit.

[00:51:37] Eddie Robinson: Our team includes technical director Todd Hulslander producer Laura Burks editors Mark DiClaudio and Jonmitchell Goode. Sound designer, Dave McDermott. I SEE U as a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And for more updates and episodes, visit our website. I S E E U show. org. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, I feel you, we hear you, I SEE U , until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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