For years, Reginald Moore tried to bring attention to the history of convict leasing in Sugar Land and the possibility that the bodies of some people who were a part of that system likely were buried nearby. He was vindicated in 2018, when bones were found on the construction site of a new Fort Bend Independent School District building.
Eventually, the remains of 95 people – 94 men and possibly one woman – were discovered on the school district property.
Moore was able to see some of the local community’s work to memorialize the “Sugar Land 95” begin before he passed away in 2020.
Now, his wife, Marilyn Moore, is picking up where he left off, helping Fort Bend ISD complete the memorialization project. Moore is the president of the Friends of the Sugar Land 95, a new nonprofit that will assist the school district in fundraising for the project and act as a liaison between the district and community groups.
“My main target was (to make sure) his work would not be hidden or forgotten,” Moore said of her late husband.
Moore said she and her group are waiting to hear from the district about an agreement that will clearly outline each member’s role in fundraising for the project.
Fort Bend ISD last week unveiled the next phase of its plans to memorialize those graves and educate the community about the history of convict leasing.
Reaction from the community has been mixed.
The proposed designs, created by the district’s architectural partner MASS Design, will feature outdoor learning and gathering spaces and signage about the convict leasing system in Texas. In addition, the space will include a large pavilion for community events and gatherings. Walkways lined with benches will connect the space once completed.
Throughout the site, visitors will have space to reflect and pay their respects and educators will be able to lead classes about the convict leasing system.
Once DNA testing is complete and descendants located, Fort Bend ISD will work with them on the gravestones for the 95.
Chassidy Olainu-Alade, coordinator for community and civic engagement for Fort Bend ISD, said the district is in the earliest stages of fundraising for the $4 million project. The goal is to begin construction by 2025.
Sha’Terra Johnson, Vice President of the Fort Bend Black Heritage Society, said it is exciting to see the project start to come to life.
Before the bodies were found, she said, there was no national conversation about convict leasing. To have a place where that history is on display is important, she said.
“Being a person that knows about a lot of the Black history and Fort Bend County, a lot of our history is not told,” she said. Old stories about the Black experience in Fort Bend County often were not written down and ended up forgotten, she said.
The amount of time it has taken for the district to present plans to transform the space did not concern her, Johnson said. In fact, she said she thought the process was going faster than other historic preservation projects she has seen.
“When you have different entities that have different funding that have different perspectives, you have to work through all of those different entities,” she said. “That takes time. That’s not an overnight process.”
Robin Cole, president of the Society for Social Justice & Equity for the People of Sugar Land, said she has doubts about how honestly the history of convict leasing will be told through the project. The amount of time that has passed without what she considers a proper memorial frustrates her.
“My degree of confidence over everything they’ve done since that discovery, leads me to believe that that is just talk. I see no plan. I see no strategy.” Cole said.
“They’re not going to be raw and honest, no, they’re going to water it down. Like they do everything else in Texas regarding race and our history,” she added.
Moore said she thinks her husband would be happy with the memorial plans.
His ultimate goal, she said, was the creation of a museum about the convict leasing system. It remains unclear whether that will ever become a reality.
Olainu-Alade said although the fundraising portion of the mission has just begun, the district has heard from individuals and organizations with an interest in donating to the project.
The district is in conversation with Commissioner Andy Meyers’ office about potentially securing $1.5 million from a previous park bond to support the project.
Olainu-Alade said the district hopes to receive half of the total project cost – $2 million – before starting construction.
The district also is waiting to hear back from the Texas Historical Commission about the official historical marker, which has been the subject of some dispute.
Currently, the cemetery is called the Bullhead Camp Cemetery after the Bullhead Convict Labor Camp, a name that some local activists and researchers claim is incorrect.
In addition to the current cemetery space, there is a small exhibit inside the James Reese Career and Technical Center. In the exhibit, the district acknowledged that Bullhead was not the official name but an “informally spoken” name for the site; the name Bullhead Camp Cemetery has not been found on any deed, county or prison map.
There are at least four other names of camps where the bodies could have come from, Olainu-Alade said. The district has requested that Bullhead Camp and the other names be included on the historical marker.
To include more than one name in this manner on the marker would be unprecedented for the Texas Historical Commission. Olainu-Alade hopes the community is included in discussions about the name, but the ultimate decision is up to the Texas Historical Commission.
“There are a million different perspectives and points of view on this situation. I am not the governess of what we do,” Alade said. “The community has got to make that decision collectively, but then be OK when it doesn’t go one way or the other. Because if we get lost in that, then we’ll never achieve this. This is the goal to have these men and this one possible woman to be memorialized. And to give them some dignity back and not get stuck fussing over the name of the cemetery.”
Moore said the biggest hurdle she sees is getting people to acknowledge the past. How the project is handled will be the example for other states that are uncovering the same kinds of systems that existed in their own backyards.
“From my perspective, this is an opportunity to do the right thing,” she said. “For the state of Texas, the city of Sugar Land and for the county to do the right thing. Because the world is watching to see how it’s handled here.”