'Building over history': the prison graveyard buried under a Texas suburb

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tags: Texas, cemetery, prisons, preserving history

Behind a supermarket and across a highway from an airport catering to the private jet set, an education centre is rising in Texan fields bookended by fast-food chains, strip malls and residential streets lined with beige McMansions.

The scene in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land is more remarkable than it first appears. Construction crews working for the local school district uncovered human remains in February last year in what proved to be an unmarked burial ground for 95 people.

They are thought to be African American prisoners aged 14 to 70 forced into backbreaking work on sugar plantations in a post-civil war system known as convict leasing that has been described as the continuation of slavery.

The find was vindication for Reginald Moore, a local historian who was convinced Sugar Land’s soil hid a dark secret underneath a stretch of suburbia that resembles so much of the modern American landscape.

But even as the unearthing of the “Sugar Land 95” was hailed as a major discovery that helps shine light on a shameful episode in American history, Moore geared up for what would prove a yearlong battle against those he sensed would prefer that Sugar Land’s past remain buried.

Sugar Land is now a booming slice of Houston’s metropolis. The population of the one-time company town rose from 2,082 in 1960 to more than 118,000 today. A roadside sign invites drivers to tour model homes in the Imperial master-planned development, motto: “Living the Sweet Life!” The name of the minor league baseball club that plays around the corner, the Sugar Land Skeeters, is a jocular nod to the region’s copious mosquito population.

But it was not always this way. These suburbs were built over sugar plantations which consolidated into the Imperial Sugar company in the early years of the last century. It was the sugar industry that employed convict leasing where black prisoners would be rented out as free labor as farms struggled to cope with the loss of free labor with the end of slavery.

Read entire article at The Guardian

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