Today the city of Sugar Land is a sprawling suburb southwest of Houston, home to Imperial Sugar Co., shopping malls and endless cul-de-sacs. But more than a century ago, it was a sprawling network of sugar cane plantations and prison camps. Sugar Land was better known then as the Hellhole on the Brazos. 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,” as the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas complained in 1883.
In modern-day Sugar Land, it was all easy to forget — but not for one man named Reginald Moore, who couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Moore started researching Sugar Land’s slavery and convict-leasing history after spending time working as a prison guard at one of Texas’s oldest prisons, and his curiosity intensified. He had a hunch. Based on what he learned, he believed that the bodies of former slaves and black prisoners were still buried in Sugar Land’s backyard. He focused his attention on a site called the Imperial State Prison Farm, the one that bore the name of the country’s premier sugar company.
For 19 years, he searched for their bodies, stopping just short of sticking a shovel in the dirt himself.
“I felt like I had to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Moore, who is African American.
This week, his quest produced results.
At the former Imperial State Prison Farm site, archaeologists have 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 Washington Post.
The graves were found, really, by accident. The local Fort Bend Independent School District began construction on a new school at the former prison site in October, deciding to hire an archaeologist to supervise the work after Moore’s warnings of the possible burial grounds, a spokeswoman said. In February, a backhoe operator happened to see something jutting out of the dirt. He thought it was a human bone.
Archaeologists called to the site began digging. Upon the eventual discovery of the 95 bodies this spring, they began exhuming the remains in June. On Monday, they released a preliminary analysis.
Clark said they believe, almost without a doubt, that the graves belong to black prisoners — among them former slaves.
“Considering who owned the property and what the property was used for throughout time,” Clark said, “it would be 10,000 to 1 that it’s not the convict-lease cemetery.”
At the site, the archaeologists found chains but uncovered few personal effects inside the graves save for a single ring. Of the roughly two dozen intact skeletons the archaeologists have analyzed so far, all had African American traits, bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley told The Post. They all appeared to be muscularly built, many with the same misshapen bones that indicate repetitive wear — indicating hard labor, she said.
They were estimated to be as young as 14 and as old as 70.
The unearthed gravesite recalls one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, historians and archaeologists told The Post. The discovery may vindicate Moore. But more crucially, he said, it vindicates the prisoners whose backbreaking work helped rebuild the state of Texas in the ruins of the post-Civil War era without so much as a proper burial to acknowledge their contributions.
“I think we’re going to be able to paint a very vivid picture of how these people lived and what they went through here,” Clark said. “This is a completely rare site. It’s going to change how we think about Texas history and how we think about ourselves and how we built this state, how all of us built this state.”
The convict-leasing system proliferated across the south in the late 19th century and into the 20th, overwhelmingly targeting black Americans picked up for offenses such 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 businessmen and forced to work on plantations, in coal mines and railroads, or on other 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 of the era show the prisoners dressed in raggedy striped prison clothing, hoisting the cane stalks from the swampy field 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 other 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 later renamed “Imperial State Farm Prison Camp No. 1″ once the state took it over.
Even then, conditions were still so hellish that prisoners wrote songs expressing that 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 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 said they intend 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 would be to find descendants who could help identify the prisoners, they said.
Veronica Sopher, spokeswoman for the Fort Bend Independent School District, said the district is also working with Moore to explore the possibility of memorials. It is also exploring the possibility of reburying the 95 bodies in an existing prison cemetery on the same plot of land, the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, where roughly 30 prisoners were buried between 1912 and 1944.
Moore is the Imperial cemetery’s volunteer guardian.
Moore said the discovery of the 95 graves has been gratifying after so many years of being the sole advocate for the nameless former slaves and convicts. He has since held memorial ceremonies for them at the Imperial cemetery, calling himself their “spokesman.”
“It was just overwhelming,” Moore said of the discovery of the graves. “And then sad at the same time, because now I know these guys are here. This really did happen.”
Two weeks ago, he went to the site of the graves to see the bodies.
He had to steady himself as he walked up to them, he said, because he felt like he was going to faint. He knew they were dead, but for some reason as he looked at their skeletons they seemed more alive than ever, as if he really knew them.
It was like being at a funeral for a loved one, he said, the way it feels when you walk up to the casket.
“You’re sad for them,” he said, “but you know they’re not suffering anymore.”