By now, Texas’ long-shuttered convict leasing system is well known to the Fort Bend Independent School District.
The last time the district started to build on land that formerly housed a prison farm, a backhoe operator found the first remains from what would turn out to be the graves of 94 men and possibly one woman who were part of the convict leasing system that began in Texas in the late 1800s.
Since then, the district is working amid criticism to memorialize what now are known as the Sugar Land 95 and bring attention to the convict leasing system in which mainly Black inmates were rented to private companies by the state to perform harsh labor for no pay.
Now, local social justice advocates worry a similar scenario could unfold as the district pushes forward with plans to build a new elementary school in Richmond on land that once held another state prison farm.
The land was part of what had been known as the Harlem Prison Farm which stretched across more than 5,000 acres. Inmates were leased out to do work such as raising sugar cane and operating a brick plant.
The Texas Historical Commission has received notice that a prison cemetery may have existed somewhere on Harlem Road, the same road where the new Fort Bend ISD elementary school will be built. A commission spokesman said the agency has received records and notes regarding the cemetery and its approximate boundaries, but has not verified its location.
A Fort Bend ISD spokesperson said officials were aware the 16 acres purchased for $2.1 million in July for the new elementary school could be the site of another burial ground. They also knew before any work would be done, the district would have to go through a review process with the Texas Historical Commission.
“So, was there some amount of nervousness? I mean, I guess, to some extent,” Deputy Superintendent Steve Bassett said. “But we also knew that we were going to go through a process. And before the final closure on the land was done, we at least had some idea that, ‘Hey, it looks good.’”
While current surveys of the school site look promising, Bassett said the district will not build anything on the land until it is given the greenlight by the Texas Historical Commission. Advocates have questioned why the district would want to develop on prison farm land in the first place and question whether it will perform its due diligence on the site.
“Nobody is forcing the school district to build these schools on prison lands,” said Jay Jenkins, president of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness of the convict leasing system in Texas and its connection to the modern day prison system. “Literally the prison to school pipeline in Fort Bend County. They’re placing actual schools on prison land. And we don’t know why that’s such an issue.”
The new elementary school’s campus will be 130,000 square feet and will be able to accommodate 1,000 students. The district plans to break ground next year and open the school in 2026.
The Antiquities Code of Texas requires that organizations notify the state historical commission of any ground-disturbing activity on public land or work affecting state-owned historic buildings.
An intensive survey of the site has started specifically searching for evidence of a cemetery.
This survey entails broad aerial scraping to search for grave shafts, said Chris Florance, public information officer for the Texas Historical Commision.
So far, artifacts found in the initial review included forks and water bottles, Bassett said. Nothing compared to what was discovered at what is now the James Reese Technical Center.
Once the survey is completed, a report by the district’s environmental consultant will be submitted to the state for review. From there, the Texas Historical Commission can approve the report and give the district approval to start construction or determine that more survey work is required.
The site where the Sugar Land 95 were discovered went through the same process, but the surveys found no apparent evidence of a cemetery, Florance said. The graves were unearthed during the early days of construction.
Florance said it would be hard to say what exactly the historical commission could do differently this time without seeing the results of the initial survey of the site. The potential existence of an unverified cemetery highlights the importance of following the Antiquities Code of Texas, he said.
“It speaks more to the necessity of following through on these antiquities code surveys because we do have in the area a report of an unverified cemetery.’’ he said. “But I think it’s always critical to do it.”
Fort Bend ISD relies on population projections and demographers to determine where new schools will be needed in the district, Bassett said. The proposed elementary would be the fourth Fort Bend ISD school in the Harvest Green community.
Jenkins said his confidence in the district handling this site differently than it did with the Sugar Land 95 is low. Rather than building another school on prison farm land, he said, the funds could be better utilized elsewhere.
“There are other schools in Fort Bend County that have historically been ignored, and maybe are under-resourced,” Jenkins said. “And rather than build new schools on steep prison farm land, there are lots of members of the community who think the school district should be doing more to help the existing schools they have that serve the underserved population.”
Robin Cole, president of the Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land, a nonprofit with the goal of memorializing and honoring the Sugar Land 95, said she hopes the district will involve the community from the start this time around.
“It would be good for them to let the public know when they’re going to begin the excavation,” Cole said.
The Harlem Prison Farm was more recently known as the Jester State Prison Farm, the same prison farm where the late Reginald Moore, who for decades tried to bring attention to the convict leasing system – worked as a correctional officer for a brief stint in the 1980s. His work there sparked his passion to bring attention to the grim history lying beneath the surface.
Marilyn Moore, the widow of Reginald Moore, said she hopes the district will work to make sure the new elementary school is not built on top of another cemetery.
“They really need to do their due diligence,” she said of the district. “Or we’re gonna have a repeat. There’s a possibility of a repeat since this was prison property.”