For the African American community the burial site became sacred ground.
But for Fort Bend Independent School District, which owns the land, there is a caveat: The grave site also happens to interfere with its school construction.
And so it wants to move the graves.
The situation has pitted the interests of school officials tethered to taxpayer-approved construction-bond funds against the interests of preservationists and the greater African American community in Fort Bend County. This month, a city-appointed task force made up of diverse activists and scholars alike voted 19-1 to recommend reburying the since-exhumed bodies at the same site where they were found. But the school district, with the lone nay vote, has objected, complicating the delicate question of how to most respectfully memorialize exploited black lives when tremendous historical significance is at stake.
On Tuesday, despite the input from the task force, Sugar Land City Council voted 6-0 to approve an interlocal agreement in favor of relocating the bodies to a nearby existing prison cemetery.
The decision, task force members told The Post, left them feeling deflated.
“A lot of us feel like the task force has no real significance,” said Reginald Moore, a local African American activist on the task force, who had been warning public officials for nearly 20 years that bodies of convict-leasing prisoners could be buried on the acreage.
The school district, which has still sought to take part in planning memorials and educational exhibits for students, has maintained it doesn’t have the legal or practical means to operate a cemetery on its property, as spokeswoman Veronica Sopher told The Post. She said the district believes the the front yard of a high school isn’t an appropriate location for the cemetery, and in addition, she said the district has an obligation to taxpayers to complete the bond-funded construction project.
The task force’s second preference for reburial was the nearby prison cemetery in the event the school district wouldn’t budge. But its members argued that combining the convict-lease burial site with a prison cemetery from a different era would cause the convict-lease site to lose some of its significance.
“It’s like a historic site is being erased by removing them from that location,” Sam Collins, a local historian and advisory board member to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told The Post. “When the backhoe dug into this ground and dug into these bodies, it dug up history that makes us cry, but it’s part of the history of America, and we need to realize that the only way we’re going to heal is if we tell the full truth.”
Collins said they were inspired to recommend reburying the 95 bodies at the site where they were found after studying the African Burial Ground in New York, which is now a national monument. It’s history that, to a certain point, is perhaps repeating itself in Sugar Land, said Andrea Roberts, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University who has extensively studied the preservation of African American burial sites.
In 1991, the bodies of more than 400 Africans and African Americans dating back to the late 17th and 18th centuries were unearthed during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan. The remains are believed to belong to descendants of some of this country’s earliest enslaved people, who were forcibly brought to New Amsterdam — now New York — by the Dutch West Indies Company in the early 1600s. But despite the importance of the discovery, GSA insisted on pressing forward with construction. The agency decided to exhume hundreds of skeletons so a pavilion could be built as planned.
William Diamond, then the GSA regional administrator, claimed that his agency was bound “by law” to continue with the taxpayer-funded, Congress-approved construction plans, according to historian Andrea E. Frohne’s book, “The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space.” The GSA maintained that reburying the bodies onsite was “inconsistent with the use of a federal office building." Diamond said “we are committed to re-interment of these remains to an appropriate site," and offered $250,000 for a memorial on the ground floor.
But the black community responded in protest, insisting the federal government was prioritizing an office building over respect for their ancestors.
“I am appalled that the federal government built on land that is the ancestral burial land of my people,” activist Onaje Muid said at a public forum, according to Frohne’s book. “Those Africans were captive in this country and never had a voice. You must talk about the pain, the degradation. They gave their lives in the most desperate way so that I can be here today.”
The outrage spread to Congress, where Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.) berated Diamond for his “disrespect" during a congressional hearing in July 1992, which Frohne identified as a major turning point in the debate. Congress ultimately ordered GSA to cease construction of the pavilion and to alter its office construction plans so the hundreds of bodies could be reburied where they were found. The tract of land now serves as a memorial and national historic landmark.
In Sugar Land, community members have petitioned Fort Bend ISD to either alter its construction or even to sell the land containing the burial plot to the city, which is equipped to care for cemeteries. But no such plans are underway, the point at which Roberts said the school district has most obviously strayed from the example set by officials handling the African Burial Ground.
Roberts, who is black and who said her ancestors date back several generations in Fort Bend County, said the district and city’s decision to ignore the will of the task force reflects a greater history of lack of appropriate care and respect for African historic sites.
“These are bodies. These are people. And these people were put here, this way, for a reason,” she said. “That’s part of the historical context [of convict leasing]. It’s telling us something about what people thought about the bodies, how much they respected them. There’s a reason we don’t know who these people are.”
Archaeologists hired by the district began exhuming the bodies in June to find out more about who they are, with the ultimate goal being DNA testing in order to potentially identify descendants.
Before bodies can be relocated, court approval will be required.
“The intent was never not to move forward with the building,” Sopher said. "The intent was to move forward with dignity and respect and to find an appropriate place [for reburial].”
Sopher added there are currently no plans to alter construction. A wing of the building is slated to be built on top of the current burial site.
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