“History despite its wretching pain can’t be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
— Maya Angelou
In February 2018, workers at a Fort Bend Independent School District construction site discovered an abandon cemetery. The 95 human remains discovered had been buried there between 1878 and 1910. They were the remains of 94 men and one woman ranging from ages 14 to 70.
Immediately after the discovery, the district began the process of getting permission to exhume the bones. For almost a year, I’ve been working with Reginald Moore and others in Sugar Land trying to get elected officials with the city of Sugar Land and the district to properly memorialize and respect the Sugar Land 95.
The bones revealed a very sad chapter in our Texas and American history about convict leasing. After slavery ended in 1865, a clause in the 13th Amendment allowed the use of the legal system to basically re-enslave many free black people. The discovery also exposed an unsweet story of Sugar Land.
The Compromise of 1877 made the exploitation of the clause in the 13th Amendment worse. In Sugar Land, and all across the south, arrest of freed blacks increased and for those trapped in the prison system it was worse than slavery.
Even free blacks lived under the threat and oppressive cloud of being arrested at any time and placed on one of the prison farms that before the end of slavery, had been operated as a plantation.
In Galveston County, there was a totally opposite story in the little town of Hitchcock. Between the years of 1883 and 1893, a former Confederate soldier had chosen to take a different view of the future.
While many of his fellow Southerners were looking backward and trying to recreate a pre-Civil War climate, Henry Martyn Stringfellow had the courage to not relive the past.
Stringfellow chose to pay 30 black men working for him $1 dollar a day each and was accused of ruining the labor force. In a very hostile environment for his workers Stringfellow took the high road because the low road was crowded.
The economic benefit of his higher pay is still benefiting the descendants of one of his workers, Frank Bell Sr. How different would our state and country be if more people had followed the example of Stringfellow? What if the income from production at these prison farms and former plantations been more fairly shared with the workers?
The Sugar Land 95 and Stringfellow Orchards stories are two sides to one coin. One side looked backward and created an environment that produced more pain and suffering. The other side looked forward with courage and chose to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Now the Sugar Land 95 has been discovered and the story of Stringfellow contrasted against it. Will we learn from the mistakes of the past and move forward, or go backward again trying to re-create a failed system of abuse and exploitation?