Fort Bend County and the Fort Bend Independent School District will negotiate what to do with the remains of nearly 100 African American prison inmates who archaeologists believe were forced to work in a Sugar Land plantation while they were serving their time in the 19th century.
On Tuesday, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court authorized County Attorney Roy Cordes Jr. to negotiate with the school district. The district plans to construct the James Reese Career and Technical Center on the site where the remains were discovered last April.
County Judge KP George told News 88.7 the goal of the negotiation is that the remains are not moved and, if they are, to rebury them in “close proximity” to the current site.
Fort Bend ISD officials have said they don’t believe having human remains on school property is appropriate and have proposed moving them to Sugar Land’s Old Imperial Farm Cemetery.
That cemetery is close to the site where the remains were discovered and is believed to contain graves of guards and prisoners who were once part of the Imperial State Prison Farm.
“The bottom line is these people were not, in my opinion, served justice,” George said.
He also noted there are remains of individuals as young as 14 years old. For George, the fact people died at those ages means they were put into “a very harsh condition and punishment.”
The county’s objective is to construct an official cemetery on the original site, which the county would maintain. Additionally, George said a memorial should be built, but he added he doesn’t think the county would consider purchasing the portion of land where the remains were found from the school district.
Fort Bend ISD has spent nearly $5 million since the discovery and says building the planned facility elsewhere would cost an additional $18 million, according to the Houston Chronicle.
School District is optimistic
On Tuesday, the school district said in a statement it’s “optimistic that an agreement will lead to the preservation of the historic cemetery, while allowing Fort Bend ISD to provide our students with opportunities for career exploration and development at the James Reese Career and Technical Center.”
Residents of the area have said the remains should stay where they are and the issue has gained traction on Twitter with the hashtag #SugarLand95.
Some elected officials also have taken a position. Last week, Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton told Houston Matters he wants the remains to stay “in their final resting place.”
Besides Middleton, U.S. Representative Al Green, Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds and Texas State Senator Borris Miles have also signed a letter asking for the remains not to be moved, the Chronicle reported.
The Fort Bend ISD asked a judge for permission to move the remains to the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, but George said he thinks the legal aspect of the issue will “probably go away” if there is a final agreement between the county and the school district.
The convict lease system started in Texas in 1867.