It wasn’t until this year that the remains of 95 likely prisoners were unearthed in the old Hellhole on the Brazos, after the Fort Bend Independent School District had broken ground there for a new school.
On Monday, a judge ordered the school district to halt construction and ruled that the human remains should remain at the site pending an investigation, including DNA testing to identify them, according to NBC affiliate KPRC.
“This find is very different from any other,” Fort Bend County District Judge James Shoemake said, according to KPRC. “We have a history that’s different. I want some more effort. This is important stuff. Families and communities are affected by this. You came here for permission [to build]; I’m not going to give you permission.”
The Fort Bend Independent School District told KPRC that “our sole mission is to educate students and we only exist to learn. The more knowledge we have the better. We want DNA testing. We want answers, we want to connect the body with the name, and we want to tell the story of an individual.” The district could not immediately be reached for comment by The Washington Post.
Sugar Land looked much different in the late 1800s, when the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas complained that from sunup to sundown, convicts who were leased by the state to plantation owners toiled in the fields, chopping sugar cane, sometimes until they “dropped dead in their tracks.”
It was there — the former Imperial State Prison Farm site — where archaeologists unearthed an entire plot of precise rectangular graves for 95 souls, each buried two to five feet beneath the soil in nearly disintegrated pinewood caskets. The 19th-century cemetery was unmarked, with no vestige of its existence visible from the surface.
“This place was almost truly lost to history,” archaeologist Reign Clark of Goshawk Environmental Consulting told The Post in June.
Clark said researchers have almost no doubt that the graves belong to black prisoners — among them former slaves. Their ages are estimated to be as young as 14 and as old as 70.
The convict-lease system proliferated across the South in the late 19th century and into the 20th, overwhelmingly targeting black Americans picked up for offenses as minor as vagrancy, flirting with white women or petty theft, as historian Douglas A. Blackmon reported in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name.” The prisoners were then leased by the state to private businesses and forced to work on plantations, in coal mines and on railroads, or on state projects — such as building the entire Texas Capitol building from scratch.
In Texas, the highly profitable system was notorious along the Brazos River, the epicenter of the country’s sugar industry in the 19th century.
Photographs from the era show the prisoners in ragged striped prison clothing hoisting cane stalks from swampy fields into mule-drawn wagons and delivering them to the mills, including the Imperial Mill. It was the early foundation of the Imperial Sugar Co., which benefited from convict labor in the cane fields after its founding around the turn of the 20th century, according to the book “Sugar Land, Texas, and the Imperial Sugar Company.”
The prisoners chopping sugar cane, subject to whippings and beatings, were almost exclusively black, concentrated on neighboring plantations owned by former slave drivers Edward Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis. The site of the Fort Bend Independent School District’s new school — and of the newly discovered graves — rests on land that was “Ellis Camp No. 1,” Clark said. The camp was renamed “Imperial State Farm Prison Camp No. 1″ when the state took it over.
Even then, conditions were still so hellish that prisoners wrote songs saying they would rather die than spend another day toiling under the hot sun: “Go down, ol’ Hannah,” Imperial’s most famous prisoner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Huddie William Ledbetter, who performed under the name Lead Belly, wrote in one. “Doncha rise no mo’/If you rise in de mornin’/bring Judgment Day.”
“When the state leased convicts out to private contractors, they had no financial interest in the health or welfare of the people working for them,” said W. Caleb McDaniel, a history professor at Rice University in Houston. “And so the convict-leasing system saw extremely high levels of mortality and sickness under convict lessees. If the prisoner died, they would simply go back to the state and say, ‘You owe us another prisoner.’ ”
In Texas alone, more than 3,500 prisoners died between 1866 and 1912, when lawmakers, shocked at the mortality, outlawed convict leasing, according to historian Robert Perkinson’s book, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.” By his calculation, that means more African Americans died in convict leasing in the South in the same period than in lynchings.
Archaeologists Clark and Banks Whitley had said over the summer that they intended to seek permission from the Texas Historical Commission to complete a more detailed analysis of the bones recovered from the cemetery, such as DNA testing. The ideal goal was to find descendants who could help identify the prisoners, they said.
In handing down his decision Monday, Judge Shoemake said he intends to revisit his decision by the end of March, according to local reports.