Sugar Land 95 to be honored at news conference June 19

The remains of the 95 victims still lie in unadorned graves in a grassy Sugar Land field, marked only by flat, black rectangular stones engraved with numbers.

But the tragic tale of the monumental discovery of the “Sugar Land 95” is far from over.

June 19, a day commonly known in the South as “Juneteenth,” is when Texas slaves learned they were officially freed two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. On this historic date, a Sugar Land community group will pay tribute to the Sugar Land 95 in a moving ceremony designed to seek justice for the 95 African American victims who died as part of the state-sanctioned convict leasing system. The Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land – S.O.J.E.S. – plans to build a national convict leasing museum and educational center to inform the world about the harrowing system of racial oppression that existed in Texas and throughout the South from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

“The time has come to get justice for the Sugar Land 95, their unimaginable lives of forced labor, and explain why people should never again be subjected to such inhumane and cruel practices that benefitted only a few,” says Robin Cole, a Sugar Land resident and president S.O.J.E.S., the community organization she founded. “S.O.J.E.S. is steadfast in its belief that the plight of the Sugar Land 95 needs to be fully revealed, education needs to happen, and justice for these victims includes honor, memorialization and healing the community.”

S.O.J.E.S.’s tribute and news conference – “A Juneteenth Proclamation for Justice for the Sugar Land 95,” will include statements from elected officials, community dignitaries, organizations and supporters, as well as Marilyn Moore, wife of the late Reginald Moore, the former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) guard and long-time historian and community activist who sought to tell the truth about convict leasing in Sugar Land.

NEWS CONFERENCE DETAILS:

WHO: The Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land (S.O.J.E.S.)

WHAT: “A Juneteenth Proclamation for Justice for the Sugar Land 95”

WHEN: 11:30 a.m., Saturday, June 19, 2021

WHERE: Bullhead Camp Cemetery (behind FBISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center), 12300 University Blvd., Sugar Land, TX 7747

BACKGROUND

Convict leasing often has been referred by historians as “slavery by another name.” Before the Civil War, Confederate states used slaves to build agricultural and industrial empires. As a result of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, these states no longer had free labor and their economies fell into ruin.

Even though the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, it contained a loophole (italicized): “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This clause legalized a new form of human oppression in which individuals convicted of crimes became enslaved by forced convict labor.

The Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land | 5826 New Territory Blvd. #711 | Sugar Land, TX 77479 | sojesjustice@gmail.com

Southern states carefully constructed laws called “Black Codes,” and suddenly, mostly African-American males found guilty of crimes, including such questionable “offenses” as being an orphan, homeless or jobless, were thrust into the criminal justice system, convict leasing, and post-Civil War slavery. In Texas, this new source of cheap labor, convict leasing, forced these victims of racial exploitation to toil in various industries, but most brutally in sugar cane fields for long hours, with little food, poor living conditions, whippings, maiming and the strong likelihood of death within two years.

In the late 1800’s, two men – E. H. Cunningham and L. A. Ellis – partners in the sugar cane business, were major purveyors of convict leasing. They were granted a contract to become operators of the Texas state prison system, thus giving them access to lease all the inmates in the state penitentiary. The state earned $3.01 a month for each victim of forced labor they used. These men became wealthy, while the brutal working conditions in this area of present-day Sugar Land, earned the name “Hellhole on the Brazos.” The financial success of this local region was built on the back of victims of racial oppression and exploitation.

For years, Reginald Moore and others knew that the remains of victims of convict leasing would likely be discovered. And on February 19, 2018, a backhoe operator hired by the Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) discovered the first of the 95 human remains on the site of the new James Reece Career & Technical Center (JRCTC). The school district, which had obtained the property previously owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice years earlier, halted construction while more remains were unearthed and a decision about their fate made its way through the courts.

Today, the Sugar Land 95’s burial ground is intact. The names and identities of those buried there are not certain and await further DNA testing. The local school district is constructing an indoor display of the discovery and history within the JRCTC and beatification of the cemetery, and county officials are proposing construction of a memorial park in the area.

S.O.J.E.S.’s plans are more ambitious.

“The discovery of the Sugar Land 95 serves as a necessary catalyst in propelling our community to bravely confront the truth of our painful local history,” says Cole. “We are looking to raise awareness and seek justice for the

Sugar Land 95 through a museum and educational center that will memorialize, honor those victims, heal the community and educate the world. The museum will take visitors through a journey of consciousness from the painful history of slavery and convicting leasing and will include examples of slave replicas, prison life and simulate the deplorable working conditions of a sugar plantation, in essence what life was like for the Sugar Land 95. This journey for justice is important to paving a brighter path forward for the community, state, nation and the world.”

“S.O.J.E.S. is committed to giving a voice to the voiceless by emphasizing that truth telling is a form of advocating for justice, not only in the past, but also for the seeking meaningful change and real solutions to contemporary issues through education and reconciliation between past and present,” says Anna Lykoudis-Zafiris, vice president of S.O.J.E.S. “We hope museum visitors leave with the question ‘Where do we go from here?,’ We invite all members of the community, nation and the world to join us in this important journey for truth, honor, justice and healing for the betterment of all humankind.”