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Crews unearthed a historic Texas cemetery. Five years later, bodies still haven't been ID'd

Brittney Martin
The Texas Newsroom

This story is part of Episode 1 of Sugar Land. Listen to the full episode above.

In the fall of 2017, Fort Bend Independent School District broke ground on a new career and technical center in Sugar Land, Texas. As the district superintendent gestured to the empty field behind him, he called the future school “an enormous step forward,” and said it would be “preparing students for generations and generations.”

But before launching Fort Bend into the future, the new school unearthed evidence of the area’s dark past. Just a few months into construction, a backhoe operator was filling in a trench when he spotted a bone.

 Reginald Moore spent years pushing the City of Sugar Land to acknowledge its not-so-sweet origins.
Courtesy of Marilyn Moore
Reginald Moore spent years pushing the City of Sugar Land to acknowledge its not-so-sweet origins.

“They'd been seeing agricultural remains and things like cow bones and horse bones and sheep and pig and all that–they'd been seeing that the whole time. But there was something a little different about these bones,” said Reign Clark, the archeologist who led research on the site.

They were different: They were human remains. Day after day, more were unearthed. Each grave was draped with a plastic tarp, and soon the whole field was covered. By the end of the summer of 2018, a total of 95 bodies had been found.

Everyone started asking the same question, one that remains unanswered all these years later: Who was buried here? 

One local man claimed to know the answer, and had been warning anyone who’d listen about it for years. His name was Reginald Moore.

Moore was impossible to miss. He was 6’2 with a booming voice and the cadence of a preacher. Moore had become a regular fixture at city council, school board and county commissioners meetings, where he pushed the City of Sugar Land to acknowledge its not-so-sweet origins.

Unearthing a history of convict leasing

Today, Sugar Land is one of many desirable suburbs on the outskirts of Houston. But in the early 1800s, it was home to some of the hottest real estate in Texas. When the “Father of Texas” himself – Stephen F. Austin – was doling out land to the state’s earliest non-Native settlers, he chose the area for his homestead. The City of Sugar Land is proud of this heritage, honoring it with landmarks like First Colony Mall, a neighborhood called New Territory, and Settlers Way Park.

A less discussed part of its history: Near the turn of the 20th century, the area was the largest hub for convict leasing in Texas. The practice of leasing convicts for labor was adopted across the South in the decades following the Civil War. At the time, it solved two major issues white landowners faced: It provided a cheap workforce to replace the slaves they’d lost and allowed them to continue treating Black people as second-class citizens.

 Prisoners on a construction site in Texas during the convict leasing era.
Courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission
Prisoners on a construction site in Texas during the convict leasing era.

At public meetings, Moore would explain how Black male prisoners were most often lent out to sugar farmers and forced to do the grueling work of harvesting sugar cane.

“The system said you were free unless convicted of a crime,” Moore said. “And so that's how they were able to get slavery back.”

Moore believed the graves found at the Fort Bend ISD school construction site belonged to Black prisoners who worked and died on local sugar plantations. And he’d been saying the same since long before their bodies were actually found.

Take the summer of 2013 — five years before the graves were discovered — when the City of Sugar Land was looking to invest in some new parks projects. There were a few proposals on the table: a network of hike and bike trails, a festival site and a sports park.

Definitely not on the list? A memorial to convict leasing. But that didn’t stop Moore from showing up to ask for one.

“Part of the money out of the bond election, I’d like for them to build a museum in honor of the convict lease system,” Moore told the Sugar Land City Council at the time. He also wanted the city to start proactively searching for unmarked convict graves.

“The concerns are where these people are buried. And those homeowners would like to know where these bodies are,” he said. “Are they living on grave sites?”

Moore’s persistence wore on many officials, and his warnings and requests were often dismissed. But despite all the years of brush offs and rejections, Moore never backed down.

 Black tiles mark the graves of the Sugar Land 95 outside the James Reese Career and Technical Center.
Brittney Martin
The Texas Newsroom
Black tiles mark the graves of the Sugar Land 95 outside the James Reese Career and Technical Center.

Moore was at the construction site in October 2017 the day after contractors showed up to work on Fort Bend ISD’s new career and technical center. Despite not having concrete proof of it at the time, he told workers they were attempting to build on an African American gravesite. He also called the Texas Historical Commission, the state agency in charge of safeguarding historical sites.

At first, Fort Bend ISD was undeterred and construction continued. In an email at the time, the district's chief operations officer wrote, “We feel that we have done our due diligence, and work on the site continues.”

The Texas Historical Commission, however, disagreed. They sent a letter to the district recommending they hire a professional archeologist to monitor construction. Moore kept making calls, and within a week the district had hired a team of archaeologists to monitor and survey the site.

Original estimates showed the monitoring work would cost the district about $45,000 – and it seemed not everyone at Fort Bend ISD was thrilled with the decision.

One week after the district hired the archaeologists, some school board members were at a local middle school when Moore approached them. Dave Rosenthal served on the district’s board of trustees from 2012 to 2022, and according to him, Moore “hijacked the conversation with his concerns.”

At first, Rosenthal said he engaged him and took an interest in his cause. But when the group rose to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance,” Moore turned his back to the flag in protest. He later said it was because of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “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.” That single caveat ushered in the era of convict leasing.

Moore’s protest didn’t go over well with Rosenthal.

“After witnessing the rude behavior of Mr. Reginald Moore on Monday evening at Quail Valley Middle School, I do not believe the district should have anything to do with this man,” Rosenthal wrote in an email to district administrators shortly afterward.

Archaeologists working at the grave sites found in Sugar Land in the summer of 2018.
Elizabeth Trovall
Houston Public Media
Archaeologists working at the grave sites found in Sugar Land in the summer of 2018.

“I understand his animosity due to his belief that some dark history has possibly been ignored. But don’t drag our school, its staff and worse, our students, into this. I am considering writing a resolution asking the district to cease the archeological study until Mr. Moore publicly apologizes to all parties individually and to the district for his actions,” wrote Rosenthal.

Still, the archeological work moved forward. Goshawk Environmental Consulting monitored construction of the school for three months, digging trenches to search for any remains or culturally significant historic artifacts. During that time, they found none. After they finished their work, they began writing their report for the Texas Historical Commission.

One month later, the first bones were found.

Moore was hopeful. He thought people would finally have to listen to what he’d been saying all along. They’d have to acknowledge how these Black men were exploited. They’d have to face the truth, make amends, pay reparations. Finally, things would be different.

But he was wrong.

This story continues in Episode 2 of "Sugar Land," an investigative podcast series from The Texas Newsroom. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Naomi Reed and Brittney Martin