The recent discovery of a mass grave in Sugar Land is shedding light on Texas’ racial history after the Civil War.

One of the things it’s revealing is the connection that famous and founding Galveston families had with a Texas prisons program that forced incarcerated black men to work unpaid on local farms and other businesses.

In April, construction crews building a new school in Sugar Land discovered dozens of unmarked graves. Archaeologists later identified the bodies in the graves as African-Americans men and women. Some were teenagers, others were at least 70.

The bodies were believed to belong to people who worked in Texas’ convict-leasing system.

Under that program, prisoners were leased out to private businesses to perform manual labor. The work was hard, and equivalent to slavery, said Sam Collins, a local historian and activist.

The companies that helped facilitate the program also have a local connection, Collins said.

“There are a lot of people that didn’t realize how extensive the convict leasing was or the families that were involved in it,” he said.

While researching the history of the convict-leasing program at Galveston’s Texas History Center at Rosenberg Library, Collins found contracts that were written as part of the system.

The names on the contracts are familiar to Galvestonians.

One of the contracts was an agreement between the Texas prison system and Ball, Hutchings and Company, a Galveston bank formed by John Sealy, John Hutchings and George Ball in the early 1800s.

The company was one of the most powerful businesses in a time when Galveston was a booming port city, before it was devastated by the 1900 Storm that killed thousands of people.

That the company was involved in the leasing program says a lot about the nature of the city at the time, Collins said.

“Galveston is perceived that, as a major port city, it was open and freer,” Collins said. But wealthy families had stakes in slave plantations off the island, and then later benefited off the leasing program, Collins said.

The convict leasing system began in 1867. The state of Texas was cash-starved after the Civil War, and the program allowed the state to collect money for its prisoners, without paying for the cost of housing or caring for prisoners. The program was abolished in 1910 after revelations prisoners were abused and neglected.

The convicts that were part of the lease agreement likely worked on farms in Brazoria County, but it was no surprise that Galveston businesses were involved in the leasing system, Collins said.

The leasing system was essentially a replacement for slavery, Collins said. Black men were locked up on slight charges, and then compelled to work, Collins said. The contracts specified the prison workers would be “negroes,” Collins said. That requirement demonstrated the program’s racist intentions.

“Everyone was in on the scheme to get you arrested,” Collins said. “They were trying to target specific subsets of the population to re-enslave them.”

Collins is reaching out to some of the families and foundations associated with the names found on the lease agreements, he said. He wants to see whether those people are interested in helping educate people about the history of convict leasing, he said.

He thought some of the local families whose names are connected to the leasing program might be willing to donate to a proposed convict-leasing museum in Sugar Land, he said.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have, but as we cut into this onion, you find out different things,” Collins said. “You begin to cry.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.


Senior Reporter

(52) comments

Gonzalo Gonzalez

It's interesting that you failed to mention a current connection to this story.

The graveyard discovered was in Sugarland and was clearly connected to Imperial Sugar. The convict labor worked the sugar plantations in that area. Those sugar plantations provided raw materials to be processed into sugar. As many of you know, Imperial Sugar was owned by the Kempner family and contributed to that family's wealth. It would be interesting to hear from the current family members about this "skeleton" in their closet.

Carlos Ponce

Gonzalo, every family has a "skeleton" in their closet. Best thing to do is show respect for the remains of those 95 buried. The bodies will be moved to make way for Fort Bend ISD's James Reese Career and Technical Center. Some would like the remains moved to the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery half a mile down the road.

Bill Broussard

The Kempner family has spent most of the time I’ve known them in political, spiritual and financial strong support of the African American community. When there were raises to give to city workers, a Kempner Mayor always gave it. When there was rebuilding to be done, they always supported it. I cannot speak to motive but I can say they seem to have spent a century working amends any way they could

The current Kempner are good people and well intended human beings. If they can help I’m sure they will

Rusty Schroeder

Mayor Lydia Ann Thomas echoed all that you have printed, a very nice Lady and Galveston Historian.

Paul Hyatt

Could they be held responsible for what their family did a generation ago? Really? I hope people like you have no skeletons in their closet as if you do someone in the future might dig them up and set them to haunt you and put the blame on you when you had NOTHING to do with their past! This is a shake down to benefit the few!

Bailey Jones

We're taught in school that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the US. But this amendment included a clause -

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, "except as a punishment for crime" whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

After Reconstruction and south regained political power, laws were passed in every ex-Confederate state that allowed blacks to be arrested for just about anything, from not being able to prove employment to talking loud in the presence of a white woman. Once arrested and (always) convicted, a fine would be imposed. If the person was unable to pay the fine (almost always) a local businessman would step up to pay the fine. The convict would then be indentured to the businessman until the convict paid back his fine from his wages (minus room, board, equipment rental, clothing, and whatever else the businessman chose to levy) or until he was worked to death. In some parts of the south this system continued until WW2. There are still people alive in the south who remember being held as virtual slaves. I recommend the book by Douglas Blackmon, "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II".

Samuel Collins III

Mr. Blackmon will be in Houston at Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 12955 Memorial Drive. September 14th at 6:30pm. Tickets are $15. Limited seating and dinner is included.

Paul Hyatt

It was the demon-crats laws that laid down the KKK and the Jim Crow laws and I see not one of the DNC being held responsible for their actions. Why is that?

Mark Stevens

Thought 1: Consider the ramifications for the justice system. The State needed money. Money came from Prisoners. So the State needed more prisoners. What does this say for the "chance" that any black person had in courts of the day.
Thought 2: This one really hurts, or ought to. At the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and after, it was amply demonstrated that major German industrialists (Krupp; I.G. Faarben, etc.) used what amounted to slave labor. They "leased" or perhaps outright purchased inmates from concentration camps to do the dirtiest work available. The prisoners were of course subjected to horrible conditions.The calculus seems to have been that if they were going to die from abuse and starvation anyway, they might as well be worked to death to the profit of BigWigs who were filling German war material contracts and who, in some cases such as Krupp, had generously funded Hitler's earlyparty when it was nearly bankrupt. I refer readers to William Manchester's "Arms of Krupp", and esp. to the Chapter entitled "Who Are These People...."
Mark W. Stevens

Rusty Schroeder

The GCDN new slogan, "Bringing Back the 1800's Daily ". Tying this story to Labor Day doesn't even surprise me considering the source. While with DOW S. TX Ops. my crews took care of 2 black cemeteries that were all but forgotten when we found them. I will tell you this, left them better than when we found them, who knows the conditions today, one was in La Marque.

I can't wait for tomorrow's edition of the GCDN, I can already envision the headline: " The KKK , Slavery , and It's Connection to the Trump Presidency ". Just wait and see, good ness.

Raymond Lewis

I suspect you missed the point Mr. Schroeder as you try desperately to make a point. In this instance, it seems a stretch to blame GCDN?

Rusty Schroeder

No, Mr. Lewis I have not. Maybe you don't see the point. The only desperation I see is that of the GCDN attempts at re-living the past and Civil War era to that matter. I actually added something about Galveston County, not Fort Bend County, imagine that.

Raymond Lewis

You did. Still find it difficult to see how GCDN is some how responsible for 'dreading up the past'. I suspect you intellectually understand these horrible historical events don't go away simply if we don't talk about them. In fact the opposite is true.

Paul Hyatt

What NONE of them will admit is that was the demon-crats who kept the slavery going, as it was the same ones who fought to keep them in slavery before the civil war. What no one is bringing out is that it was the same demon-crats who wrote the Jim Crow laws, that fought against segregation in the 60's. Why isn't Sam trying to shake down the DNC as they were part of all of this....After all the people who supposedly did all of this are long gone and dead and now Mr. Collins wants to hang their relatives? How sad!

David Blumentritt

I have been missing the history stories in in the GDN by Casey Edward Green on Sundays. Interesting that Mr. Collins came to the conclusion that racism was the obvious motive for the contracts specifying negroes. Seems more obvious that it was because of the difficulty of the work and conditions and the knowledge of the qualifications of former slaves. I wonder if there are any historical records whether business owners using this contract labor were competing with the more enlightened owners like Henry Stringfellow and which was most productive?

David Schuler

I find extraordinary irony in the fact that the GDN published this article which is almost certain to dredge up injustice and hate from the past while in the same edition publishing an article on GISD's No Place for Hate campaign. We all need to remember that one alive today had anything to do with what happened in Sugar Land. Injustice today needs to be identified and dealt with, but it's never a good idea to keep reliving the past.

Gary Miller

As usual no mention of the political party that made this possible. Democrats fought to preserve slavery. Democrats passed segregation laws then passed prison sale laws and offered afirmative action to keep blacks thinking they needed Democrat help to get by. In November black voters may put a big hurt on Democrats. Polls indicate black support for Trump has increased from 11% to over 32% since the election. Not all will vote, not all that vote will vote for Republican but more than ever before may vote Republican. Black revenge on Democrats?

Emile Pope

Only in fantasyland. trump lost half his Black support when Omarosa turned against him...

Carlos Ponce

African-Americans didn't care for Omarosa before and after she turned on President Trump whose ratings among that group are up.
“ 'Her tell-all mea culpa won’t win her any brownie points with most blacks,' said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of the book 'Why Black Lives Do Matter.' 'Their loathing of Omarosa is virtually frozen in stone. She’s still roundly lambasted as a two-bit opportunist, a racial sellout and an ego driven hustler.' ”'t-buying-Omarosa's-turn-against-Trump

Gary Scoggin

“Only in fantasyland. trump lost half his Black support when Omarosa turned against him...” - it went from sixteen people down to eight. 😁

Carlos Ponce

Which poll are you using or did you do your own personal poll?

George Croix

I'd think black people would like jobs as much as anyone, and under THIS President their employment is the best rate it's ever...ever...been.....ever......
All they got from the last guy was promises, expectations, then being left worse off after 8 years than at the start.....not exactly Nobel caliber effort......
At some point, all adults must abandon thinking what they are told to think like children and begin thinking that what they can see, feel, and experience just might be real......if adulthood is desired, anyway......

Emile Pope

No you don't think...exactly where do you get your reasoning that we were worse off than before Barack Obama became president?

George Croix

Well, at least century old front page news is not the same as fake news.
Both, though, as news, are worthless

David Doe

It's fairly easy to see how the msm pushed "Political Agendas. The good thing, as far as I can tell is it's Not working. One thing I would like to lay at the feet of the msm and the left is the "Division" they have created. What happened to the party of "Compassion"?

Kay Fritz

Do any one of you that commented so far believe that this might lead to the renaming of half of the Galveston streets and buildings? It would not surprise me in the least.

Christopher Smith

Good story John. Thanks for bringing these connections to light. It does no good to try and ignore the past just because it makes some people uncomfortable.

Gary Scoggin

Those who do not like stories such as this are not compelled to read them.

Charles Hughes

Wow, Interesting how some want to cherry pick what history of their ancestors should be reported.

George Croix

The same can be said for those opposed to dissenting comments. Don’t read them....

Gary Scoggin

I often don’t. I can look at who posted it and know what the comment will say without reading it. (But I always read yours, George.)

George Croix

We have more in common than you might think, Gary....not even counting our years of servitude at the refinery.....[beam][beam]


The really sad thing is that today the system or a vestige of it continues to punish the poor by imposing fines they cannot pay, then building up usurious penalties and finally interring them when they cannot pay. Jail time, lost jobs, destroyed families can raise the societal cost over an unpaid traffic ticket exponentially.

Carlos Ponce

Poor people can and should obey the law.

Paul Hyatt

Am I the only one that sees a shake down coming down. This is the same type of tactic that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others use on a frequent basis.... What a shame!

Paul Hyatt

Wow with the way GCDN made this story a headline story it did not stay up long once they saw that the public was not buying it and saw it as a shake down. I do wonder why all of a sudden today it was taken down. Most will not see my comments but the journalist might. What a shame that you all as well as Sam are trying to hang the grandchildren of those who did what was in the law ( wrong as it was) and now want to shake down the relatives who had NOTHING to do with what happened, just as Sam was not involved but looking to make money off ot this story!

Martin Connor

Please explain to me the shaking down concept. I’m not sure how that relates to this. Sam is a historian. He loves the history of our county and has no issues bringing the past to light. I want to know anything historical about our county. To deny our history is to deny our past. If you choose to decry anything that you feel unfit to deny our past then so see it. You need not try and badmouth our historians because you don’t like what you hear, because it doesn’t fit your narrative, just keep Kindly keep quiet.

Samuel Collins III

I want to invite everyone to visit the Galveston and Texas History Center to review the documents in the collection on the 4th floor. You can also order the book "Penology For Profit: A History of the Texas Prison System 1867-1912." I am donating a copy of the book to the library GTHC. If you can't buy it you can visit the GTHC and read it. How did we get here to this point in 2018? By reading books and studying the history you can get a better understanding of what happen not only to the individuals, but also to their families and communities. The new Smithsonian in D.C, the Lynching Museum in Montgomery, the River Road African American Museum in Louisiana, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the Varner Hogg Plantation in West Columbia are all places trying to tell the truth of what happen in America. We are not what we use to be, but we also are not what we claim to be. Before the post and comments start suggesting I or others just leave if we don't like America. America is my home and like James Baldwin I love her enough to criticize her and like Dr. King I just want her to be true to what she said on paper.

George Croix

How is seeking perfection like planning to live for 200 years?
NEITHER is ever gonna happen....
Mr. Collins it’s my personal opinion that you are correct in that not where we wants be thing, but not’s not all one sided, and there’s plenty of blame in all directions just as there is plenty to be thankful for.
History learned and remembered is a valuable to.
History dwelled on debilitating....

Samuel Collins III

Not dwelling on the past. We have not dealt honestly with the past and it affects our present. We may not live 200 years, but if we (the world) don't self destruct then medical advances may allow a child born today to live 200 years. How does the past affect us today? When the trooper arrested Sandra Bland because she wouldn't put out a cigarette? Then a $500 bond sends her spiraling imto a deeper depression and she commits suicide. All behind a power trip over a cigarette. When drugs like crack and powder cocaine are punished differently? When a cashier gets fired or arrested for passing groceries to a family member, but a company executive gets a bonus because he or she realized 32 hrs is full time employment with benefits so they schedule employees 30hrs with no benefits increasing company profits. The cashier is a criminal, but the executive is just making a good business decision. It is not just race, but also class too. There are too many examples to list in a thread, but if you ever want to talk over a cup of $1 McDonald's coffee I will gladly meet. I am available not only to talk, but to listen too.

George Croix

"We have not dealt honestly with the past......"
That's your opinion, Mr. Collins, and I thank you for it..,
Power trip over a cigarette?
The fact is the woiman should simply have doine as requested, which means it was her decision to object over a lousy cigarette, and it's certainly not anybody's fault but her own that she was a suicide - by it's definition, it's killing oneself..
That cashier stole those groceries by not paying for them, no matter how good the motive, and company hourly work policies have nothung at all to do with theft of's a totally false equivallency. Besides, it's quite possible...possible...that those work hours got lowered as a direct result of the ACA making it cost more to not do so.....who's fault is that? And NONE of the examples so far have anything at all to do with race unless one decides to make it so. I'm not against you, Mr. Collins, but step one in deciding how wronged one has been is to use examples or instances that bear some resembalnce beyond casual and actually are in the same ballpark.
I think I'd enjoy a cold Diet Coke while you drink your coffee, and perhaps one day we'll do that. I, like you, am not, ever, afraid to stand behind what I say......or admit an error.....

Samuel Collins III

It's a date. We will figure out how to make it happen and my 30hr example was before the ACA passed. It was my wife and I had insurance so it didn't matter for her. It mattered for many other people. I will look for better examples, but we may just agree to disagree on the final conclusions. My examples may have implied I approved of stealing and that is not the case. I was trying to point out that while some actions may be legal and/or more profitable they are not always right.

George Croix

You mean before it was 'deemed' to have passed, so we could find out what was in it.....[beam][beam][beam]
"....while some actions may be legal and/or more profitable they are not always right."
Truer words were never spoken, but the trick to the old 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission' thing is that in the outcome there must be no loss to the people who'd normally have been asked for permission......
One thing one can always count on in adulthood is that few things ever turn out the way we thought in childhood, and any notions ever put in our head about 'doing your own thing' soon run afoul of reality....
It's a darn shame......

Emile Pope

So a cop demands that a civilian do something that they are not required to do then arrests them when they refuse and it's the civilian's fault? Trying to reason with a person with that thought is just a waste of time and energy. Leave them to the Fox bubble crowd and spend your time with people who respect logic and reason...

George Croix

Pope, accusing ANYBODY else of being incapable of reason.
Now that's funny, I don't care who ya are......


George Croix

This being Sunday and me in a rare good mood, I'll give you a clue, Pope, that might help you in your quest to understand basic concepts......
NO MATTER if an Officer is a jerk or whatever, I can either comply or resist his orders.
Complying, I put up with another jerk among the many thousands we put up with in our lifetime....the same kind of guff many of us have gotten from our boss(s) or coworkers and at such time had to decide to let it go, or quit our job.
Resisting I can go to jail, or at least get a fine...and for what....nothing.....
Being a smart A with the Poilice is being a dumb A at the same time. And that is a PERSONAL choice.
And absolutely this persons suicide is on HER...that to is a personal responsibility decision....personal responsibility, it's rare for some but there it is....
Try asking Samuel Collins to explain it to you...he and I do not necessarily agree in total and perhaps not even in part, but he 'gets it' where I am coming from, as do I him.
I'm quite sure that one day he and I will meet face to face, and we'll BOTH be the same people we are in these pages, but able to communicate respectfully.
Well, I wouldn't bet on it....

George Croix

Want to be......
Small screen meets fat fingers...

George Croix


I can’t sing or dance any better than I type.....

Charlotte O'rourke

One of my favorite movies growing up was “Cool Hand Luke”.

It was one of the first movie portrayals - that I can remember - demonstrating that life is not always fair or just.

This article reminded me of that movie. Re-enslavement through these racial work programs was one of the many injustices in the south, post civil war.

Today, if anyone doesn’t understand that slavery, enforced work programs based on race, or racism in general is wrong ..... what we have is a “failure to communicate”.

George Croix

Is that 'slavery', the 'enforced work programs based on race', still happening in this country today, 2018, Ms. O'rourke.
It is no trick to understand that such practice(s) were wrong.
It should be no trick to recognize they are no longer in practice in this country.
It is not a matter of 'failure to communicate', as much as a matter of failure to stop using the past as bludgeons or excuses for the present.....
At some point, people get tired of of being either blamed outright or assigned guilt by association for things they never did themselves nor did anyone they know or ever knew. History is what it is. We should learn from it, not repeat the bad parts, but not allow ourselves to dwell where we cannot change anything - the past.....
IMO, as always.....

Perhaps the folks who were not even born when such was going on in this country might note that it is STILL going on in other countries, like Africa and some Middle Eastern ones, and use their time, talents, and offense at such abuse of our fellow man to make a difference in those areas where it is still ongoing....

Charlotte O'rourke


History is important and has value.

I agree that studying or acknowledging history shouldn’t blame anyone - a different time and a different era. However, history can be used to contemplate issues and understand how to become better human beings during OUR lifetime.

Not all injustice is racial, but injustice and various forms of slavery, servitude and exploitation still occurs today, and that is beyond depressing.

Luke 1:37 King James Version (KJV)
37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

George Croix

I agree with everything you just said, Charlotte, which is why I said it in that earlier post...[beam][beam]

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