Though the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees are making plans to “further memorialize the Sugar Land 95,” Kofi Taharka, national chairman of the National Black United Front (NBUF), and others contend that not only have the Sugar Land 95 yet to be properly memorialized, but they and their descendants are being further disrespected and dishonored.
“FBISD continues with its damage control project, and they continue to desecrate the memory of those ancestors who have been called the Sugar Land 95,” said Taharka.
The Sugar Land 95 is a moniker coined by local activist Deric Muhammad to describe the remains of individuals discovered during construction of the Reese Center in February 2018. Remains the now deceased activist Reginald Moore warned FBISD officials would be unceremoniously disturbed if their construction project were to move forward.
Moore’s pleas for the district to halt the start of the Reese Center project and investigate what research told him was a burial ground for deceased inmates of the former Sugar Land prison’s convict leasing program, were ignored. That’s when body after body were “discovered.”
In November 2021, FBISD’s board, at its Agenda Review meeting, discussed a possible agreement with MASS Design Group to plan an outdoor learning space and revitalized cemetery area to “further memorialize the Sugar Land 95 at the District’s James Reese Career and Technical Center.”
FBISD acknowledged that many of the individuals discovered, with the youngest being 14-yrs-old, had been sentenced to unjust and lengthy prison sentences, reduced to slave labor, and literally worked to death.
Moore, NBUF and others pushed to have the site declared a sacred burial ground and to have the remains studies so as to be able to trace and contact any living relatives of the deceased.
Taharka says the expertise and consultants NBUF, Moore and others suggested FBISD use, were ignored, further adding to the desecration of the Sugar Land 95 and their descendants.
“If you [FBISD] don’t respect the people who are living, who are what we call communal descendants, who have told you that there is expertise in this area and you don’t consult with them, but you continue to put out PR, then you are desecrating their memory,” he added.
Immediately following the FBISD board meeting last November, FBISD Superintendent Dr. Christie Whitbeck said in an official statement: “Fort Bend ISD is a public school system with teaching and learning at its core, and the discovery of the Sugar Land 95 provides the District with an extraordinary opportunity to educate our students, community, and future generations about the discovery and its historical importance. It is our goal to ensure that the District works to educate our students and memorialize with respect and dignity the individuals who are laid to rest in the cemetery.”
“Since the discovery, the District has put forth time, funds, and effort to properly memorialize the cemetery with the care and concern that it deserves,” FBISD Board President Dave Rosenthal said. “We view the Bullhead Camp Cemetery and the history surrounding its discovery as a great site-based learning experience in our community.”
MASS Design Group, a nonprofit 501c3 Boston-based firm, said to specialize in architecture that promotes justice and the restoration of human dignity, if approved by FBISD, will lead in the development of a full design project at the Sugar Land 95 site which may include a monument, an outdoor learning space, courtyard seating, an entrance structure to display the name “Sugar Land 95 Memorial,” grave markers, pavers, fencing, and designated space to house a historical marker provided by the Texas Historical Commission.
The aforementioned gestures, according to Taharka, fall woefully short of what the deceased and their family members deserve. Tahakra pointed to the African Burial Ground built in New York in the 1990s after remains of enslaved Africans were discovered.
He also mentioned the federal law set up to protect remains of indigenous Americans as the model for a similar law to protect African remains found in the U.S.