Celebrating Blackness for Robin Cole is a lifestyle. Greeting you upon entry into her home in Sugar Land are Black dolls still in mint condition in unopened boxes held up on pedestals. On shelving around her fireplace are family photos set beside portraits of President Barack Obama. 

Robin Cole’s framed photos and idols at her Sugar Land home. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

In 2020, when she first heard about the remains of 95 Black inmates found on Fort Bend Independent School District’s property she was shocked. What she found even more shocking was how the district chose to memorialize this historic discovery. 

Five years after construction crews discovered a historic gravesite just a five-minute drive from City Hall during the construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center, the site – now known as Bullhead Camp Cemetery – still lacks informative signage and unadorned graves. 

While the school district says plans are in the works to transform the space Cole and her group, the Society of Justice and Equality for the People of Sugar Land, feel five years is too long of a wait. 

Just four minutes down the road is the Imperial Farm Cemetery. Headstones of prison guards and inmates stand tall from the ground and on the edge of the site near the road stands a historical marker. Here inmates were leased out to work on railways, mines and on plantations often in dangerous conditions. 

At Bullhead Camp Cemetery a short black chain rope fence surrounds the unidentified bodies of the Sugar Land 95. While there is an exhibit detailing the history on the site on the inside of the tech center it is only accessible during guided tours. For those coming to see the cemetery without the tour portion there is currently no signage to give visitors an understanding of what occurred there.

Dexter McCoy, Fort Bend Precinct 4 Commissioner, announced plans earlier this year to create the county’s first African American Memorial in Kendleton with a $4 million park grant. The memorial will revitalize the city’s historic Black cemetery and commemorate the county’s Black history – including the Sugar Land 95. The memorial will include facts about the county’s history of convict leasing. 

While she’s happy about the inclusion of the Sugar Land 95, the only problem is the memorial is almost 30 minutes away from where the bodies were laid to rest, Cole said. 

Cole’s idea to properly memorialize the Sugar Land 95 is much bigger: a national museum. But until that comes the least she’d like to see is a historical marker.

‘Why can’t we get this?” Cole asked. 

Chassidy Olainu-Alade, coordinator of community engagement for Fort Bend ISD, said the district wants the marker too – but the process takes time. 

From the time the bodies were discovered Olainu-Alade said the district has been working on multiple facets to properly memorialize the space including getting a historic designation for the cemetery, an inscription for the historical marker, and conducting community listening sessions with their architect for plans to transform the space. 

Alade said they received notice from the Texas Historical Commission last year that the cemetery was granted its historical designation under a program that seeks to highlight untold or underrepresented stories. She said the school district just recently got the inscription for the marker to review. Once that is completed, the inscription will go through two more additional reviews before it is finalized. 

If all the reviews go well, Alade said the district will receive the marker by February at the earliest. 

“When we think about the historic preservation piece of these sorts of sites these projects don’t happen overnight,” Alade said. 

The district plans to unveil its intentions to transform the cemetery site this fall, Alade said. The site will be divided into four zones to imitate the African American funeral process. There will be time for initial reflection, a place to view where the bodies are laid to rest, and opportunities for discussion about what they’ve gone through. The sections will give visitors background and history of the site, seating areas for students and guests to learn, walkways along the site and a covered pavilion for larger community events. 

A finalized date for the project will be contingent on fundraising and community partnerships, Alade said. 

Dennis Spellman, spokesman for Commissioner Andy Meyers, said Precinct 3 – which includes Sugar Land – received a request from Fort Bend ISD for $1.5 million to help in their effort to memorialize the Sugar Land 95. Spellman said the commissioner is reviewing the district’s plans as he considers how to help fund the project.

Robin Cole, left, and Ursela Knox are working with other advocates to push for historical recognition for the Sugar Land 95. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

In Cole’s garage she keeps poster boards from one of her group’s previous events. On each of the boards is the name and charge on an inmate who died on the same grounds where the Sugar Land 95 were found. 

As she spreads out the boards and reads each name and charge she becomes emotional. William Nash, a 16-year-old boy, stands out to her. He was sentenced to four years at Ellis Camp for theft of property over $20. He died from “congestion of brain” according to historical reports from the district. 

“He’s not even an adult,” she said of William. “Why? Why? Why?” 

In addition to the historical marker, Cole and her group want to see the bodies humanized so people can understand the full gravity of what they went through. Work to identify the 95 bodies is still underway. Researchers have identified five potential descendants to compare with the DNA found at the site. They are still working to find others to test to connect the bodies back with their families. 

Note: This story has been corrected to indicate that Fort Bend County Precinct 3 received a request from Fort Bend ISD for $1.5 million to memorialize the Sugar Land 95.

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Briah Lumpkins is a suburban reporter for the Houston Landing. She most recently spent a year in Charleston, South Carolina, working as an investigative reporting fellow at The Post and Courier via Frontline...