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.”