Negotiations are underway between the Fort Bend Independent School District and Fort Bend County to determine who will ultimately own land near Sugar Land where last year the remains of 95 former state of Texas convict laborers were unearthed.

The bodies, 94 male and one female, were in unmarked graves, ranged in age from 14 to 70 and were buried there between 1878 and 1910 when large sugar plantations operated under such harsh conditions that the place came to be known as the Hellhole of the Brazos.

Galveston County resident Samuel L. Collins III and Reginald Moore, of Houston, meanwhile, have been updating groups on the Sugar Land 95, the history of convict leasing in Texas and progress toward permanently creating a suitable memorial at the site where the bodies were found.

On April 12, Collins and Moore will lead a one-day seminar at Rice University, and in June, they will speak at The Bryan Museum in Galveston.

On March 11, Collins and Moore led a seminar at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, “Unearthing the Truth of Slavery by Another Name.”

“Our hope is that a story like this one becomes a chapter or an entire volume in American history, not merely a footnote,” Collins said.

Moore, who was a prison guard for three years in the 1980s at the Jester State Prison Farm near where the bodies were unearthed, became interested in Texas’ and the Gulf Coast region’s history of leasing convicts for unpaid agricultural labor when he first saw modern prisoners, most of them black men, working in the fields with white guards monitoring them, riding up and down rows on horseback.

To Moore, it looked like a plantation from the not-so-distant past, Collins said.

In the late 1800s, businessmen Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis signed a contract to lease the entire population of Texas prisons to work in their fields. Arrests, especially of black men, increased exponentially with harsh sentences assigned to even minor offenses that normally would have resulted in fines or probation.

The land those convicts cultivated had previously been owned by the Williams brothers, including Samuel May Williams, whose Galveston home is a familiar landmark. The land was eventually sold to Isaac Kempner of Galveston and William T. Eldridge of Eagle Lake and formally incorporated as the Imperial Sugar Company.

Kempner opposed the convict leasing program and began changing it to a free labor system just before convict leasing was scrutinized by the press and ultimately shut down, making prisoners the sole property of the state of Texas. Convict labor at prison farms in the area, like the Jester Unit, continued to operate.

In January, Harvard School of Design student Hanna Kim reached out to Moore, to help him pursue grant money to further his work. Collins, who had begun working with Moore on the Sugar Land 95 project, served as a communication liaison between the two, since Moore doesn’t use the internet. Kim set up a Skype call from her parents’ home in Cambodia, and the three talked about the work Collins and Moore were doing in Texas, ultimately deciding they should bring the story of the Sugar Land 95 to Harvard, Collins said.

Kim visited the Hutchins Center, whose director is famed African-American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., and enlisted support for bringing Moore and Collins to campus.

“I’m very honored to have been the bridge that brought them to campus,” Kim said. “A lot of people came out and it was a beautiful and super engaging event.”

Kim read about the Sugar Land 95 shortly after the bodies were discovered and was so shocked by it that it came to mind when she had to write a paper for a graduate school course, Culture, Conservation and Design, in which students examined a place and tied what happened in the past to the current identity of the place, looking at who was involved in shaping the narrative of the place, and whose voices were silenced.

Sugar Land wasn’t incorporated until 1959 but arose on land where thousands of slaves, and later convict laborers, had worked the fields making fortunes for wealthy white landowners whose names are enshrined in the area’s history, foremost among them Stephen F. Austin.

Kim, who immigrated to the United States from Cambodia at age 14, realized this was a suppressed and largely untold story in American history.

“I’ve talked to people, my friends who are Americans, and they’ve said, look, I’ve never heard of this,” Kim said. “Hearing about convict leasing still shocks people, even though it’s so easy to make connections between then and now. I think that’s why the Hutchins Center saw the critical need for this event.”

For Collins, the experience of bringing the Sugar Land 95 story to Harvard was transcendent, though an event the day after the seminar cast a dark shadow and was a brutal reminder of how some things have not changed in America.

“Mr. Moore was sitting on a couch in a lounge area of our hotel, reading the New York Times that had been dropped outside his hotel room door, when a hotel employee confronted him, assuming he was a homeless person, not a guest,” Collins said.

The hotel has since apologized for the employee’s action, but Collins said it still stings.

“It’s 2019 and this is still a reality,” he said. “This is about valuing all people for who they are, and recognizing the Sugar Land 95 for their part in our shared history.”

Kathryn Eastburn: 409-683-5257; kathryn.eastburn@galvnews.com.

(16) comments

Bailey Jones

Three very good books for filling in the gaps in the sanitized American history that most of us were exposed to in public school (in other words, how did we get here?) are

Slavery by Another Name - The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By: Douglas A. Blackmon

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin

The Half Has Never Been Told - Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

And a very good general history is These Truths - A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

Samuel Collins III

I have two of the four you listed. Blackmon came to Houston last year and I was able to get several autographed copies of his book.

Debbie Stark

History isn't always pretty. It's important to preserve the ugly parts just as much as the rest. I applaud Mr. Collins and Mr. Moore, and was honored to first hear about this issue at the TAMU Center for Heritage Conservation symposium in February. I certainly hope that the city of Sugar Land and all other parties involved will recognize the value of honest historical interpretation, no matter how painful or embarrassing it may be.

George Croix

Collins was assumed to be homeless because he was black???

That's terrible...if so........

Rusty Schroeder

No, Mr. Moore.....…. said Collins. In the 90's I was called a Mexican in Arkansas, just sayin'.

George Croix

Aaaahhhhh.........My apologies, too slowly delivered. I meant Mr. Moore.
No excuse for error other than I'm not allowed any caffeine until tomorrow...it's gonna be a rough day.....
I thought the article was an excellent one, right up to the point where a bit of innuendo left the assuming up to the reader, rather than just stating the facts on site of why Moore was accosted.
If that hotel employee acted only because of race, which is the implied reason, then he/she needs a good drawers dusting.

Bailey Jones

Yes, George, only because of race - or, more precisely, racism. Multiply that by a substantial fraction of law enforcement, landlords, loan officers, store clerks, work supervisors, HR personnel, teachers, random neighbors and passersby - and you begin to get an idea of why some of us believe the promise of equal opportunity for all Americans still has a way to go.

George Croix

And you know that, how, Bailey?
You weren't mentioned in the article.....

Samuel Collins III

I was at the hotel and while I was not there when the initial incident occurred I did witness managment's reaction. They refused to apologize to Mr. Moore until we had Harvard University staff members come over to the hotel. The GM tried to explain that it was a security issue and not a race issue. He went on to let us know he was from Africa. There was no need to tell us he was from Africa which was irrelevant to the initial incident because the GM was not the hotel staff member that confronted Mr. Moore. For arguments sake we can take out the racial variable and just agree we are all humans. The hotel staff should have just apologized for making a mistake. At the core of the issue is the fact for a few staff members Mr. Moore looked out of place. He looked to comfortable relaxing in a space some felt he should not be in. His very presence made some people uncomfortable and that required them to act on their emotions. Harvard University rolled out the red carpet. The program and dinner afterwards was great. Monday night we talked, laughed and celebrated the success of the event at dinner. On Tuesday morning we were reminded that not all humans are seen as equal. I definitely understand having to make sure you know who is in your hotel as a guest, but what about a policy that assumes everyone is a guest until otherwise proven. One of the first things hotel staff could have said was, "Good morning. Are you enjoying your stay with us?" That changes the entire interaction with the guest.

George Croix

Thanks for the much closer to first hand feedback, Samuel. I am comfortable as can be with your personal level of honesty and integrity as I have yet to see any reason not to be. A good thing.
Let's review:
"For arguments sake we can take out the racial variable and just agree we are all humans. The hotel staff should have just apologized for making a mistake."

Absolutely. Being wrong is never as bad as being unwilling to admit it, and unless it was admitted that race was THE only factor, then my personal experience is a jerk is a jerk with all people that allow him to get away with it......I personally decided one day in late 2009 I wanted a new F-150 4x4 and went into a local Ford dealership after work, meaning dirty coveralls on, and absolutely could not get anyone to come see what I was there for. Never had that happen before. Money usually talks real loud. They'd look up, but then 'get busy'..... Left, went home, cleaned up, came back in my Sunday and funerals suit, and didn't get 3' inside before TWO salesam headed my way. Told them about what happened 2 hours earlier, then walked out, went to Dickinson to a Ford dealer, and bought the new pickup. Never been back to the TC one since, and never will, unless they are the only one left someday.
Discrimination takes all forms. Sometimes, people are just jerks, sometimes it's deeper. Personally, I don't care, because the end result is the same. Sucks.

"At the core of the issue is the fact for a few staff members Mr. Moore looked out of place. He looked to comfortable relaxing in a space some felt he should not be in. His very presence made some people uncomfortable and that required them to act on their emotions."

With all due respect, Samuel, as you yourself said you were not present at the time of the incident. Those are your perceptions and/or preconceptions based on your past experiences and the info related to you after the fact this time, unless that's what the hotel told all concerned.
Not saying wrong, just saying that absent direct statements to the fact from the hotel side then it's a one sided conclusion...likely correct...

"On Tuesday morning we were reminded that not all humans are seen as equal."

Samuel, not all humans ARE equal, only born that way, and everything after that is subject to individual results, so one incident does not an entire demographic make...or, shouldn't.

"I definitely understand having to make sure you know who is in your hotel as a guest, but what about a policy that assumes everyone is a guest until otherwise proven. One of the first things hotel staff could have said was, "Good morning. Are you enjoying your stay with us?" That changes the entire interaction with the guest.'

Absolutely. It's just common courtesy that should be practiced by anyone, and a business especially that does not is one that should not be patronized whenever other options are available. Same for individuals we do not have to associate with, when doing so is not what we really want to do. Even if that hotel had a bad problem with homeless or just people taking up space without being guests, no excuse for assuming rather than asking.

Samuel Collins III

George a jerk is a jerk is correct and we can agree on that. There is much more to what I witness, but there is no need to try and explain every single comment or reaction that day. Our experience was our experience. Your life experiences are your life experiences. We are not going back to that hotel if we are ever in Harvard Square again. Individual results depend on many variable. I agree we have personal responsibility to make the most of each second of our individual lives, but no one is self made no matter how much individual success they may achieve. Whether the first five to seven years of your life was good or bad it was dependent on others. Even if you use bad experiences to motivate yourself to be successful it required the variable of those individuals in your life whether they were good and bad people.

George Croix

Samuel, I am actually a LOT more on your side than the people who make EVERY issue one of race, whether it is, or not, facts and reality be dam_ed.
I want injustices called out and stopped. I don't think we need to manufacture any to have quite enough to work on as it is, which is why I look for as many facts as possible, and the least amount of conjecture possible.
I believe you, as I stated, to be an honest and straight up guy.
As such, I'm confident that you know as well as I do that not EVERY thing that happens is race based.
When it is, accurate info is needed, to let people have a REAL idea of the problem, rather than just assumptions, or worse, stereotyping either way.
That's why I was interested more in your observations on the ground than any other conclusions offered as fact but actually based on conjecture....it serves a higher purpose of minimizing factual errors.....I think we have WAAAAY to much assuming in this country, which negates the realities that need attention...in a lot of areas.
Nobody but a fool would argue that there's no racism, as nobody but one would say it's only unidirectional......
Your stock in trade, imo, is a good reputation for honesty. IMO again, that's a lot more valuable as a source for the making up of minds than guesswork or intentional partisanship.
Thanks for the feedback.....

Samuel Collins III

We can agree there is no way to be 100% certain of why anyone thinks or acts in a certain manner. Nor do we need to be 100% in agreement. To your point people can be 90 to 95 or even 99% in agreement, but that small percentage of disagreement keeps them from moving forward. Most of the time I refrain from commenting on these threads, but I slipped and posted something. Growing up I walked to school and road the bus to school with friends. For the majority of the ride we or walk we were together. At school we went to different classes. On the way home we walked most of the way together, but at some point we parted ways. They went in the direction they needed to go to get to their final destination and so did I. You walked a LOT further with me than others and for that I say thank you. For the last few steps we just need to walk to our individual destinations. To your point it seems we are in the same neighborhood, just not on the same street.

George Croix

Samuel, people don't have to be neighbors, to be neighborly......
You are welcome.


Samuel Collins III

George a jerk is a jerk is correct and we can agree on that. There is much more to what I witness, but there is no need to try and explain every single comment or reaction that day. Our experience was our experience. Your life experiences are your life experiences. We are not going back to that hotel if we are ever in Harvard Square again. Individual results depend on many variables. I agree we have personal responsibility to make the most of each second of our individual lives, but no one is self made no matter how much individual success they may achieve. Whether the first five to seven years of your life was good or bad it was dependent on others. Even if you use bad experiences to motivate yourself to be successful it required the variable of those individuals in your life whether they were good or bad people.

Bailey Jones

Another story in the news - this one regarding the Texas Capitol - https://www.texasobserver.org/civil-rights-activists-push-lawmakers-to-confront-texas-dark-history-of-convict-leasing/

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