A Different Kind of Unfree Labor Haunts a Houston SuburbRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, Texas, prisons, convict labor, black codes, Sugarland Prison Farm
Ashanté Reese is assistant professor African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.
Five years after archaeologists discovered 95 graves in Sugar Land, Tex., during construction of a new high school, officials are still grappling with questions about how to honor the deceased and what is owed to their families and communities.
Archival records suggest that the majority of the unmarked and forgotten graves belong to Black men who had labored under the Texas convict-lease system, a regime that enabled private enterprises seeking workers to rent people from prisons. These leased men included 18-year-old Nathan Pope, identified as one of the Sugar Land victims, who was killed and buried after attempting to escape from a labor camp in 1879.
Today, Sugar Land continues to reckon with the gravesite discovery and what it reveals about the relationship between the city’s history of growth through the 19th century and the exploitation, abuse and even killing of mostly Black Texas prisoners. This history exposes that Sugar Land — the “city that sugar built” — is really the city that unfree labor built, both enslaved and leased.
After the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 ended slavery in the United States, White people throughout the South sought to maintain the structures of white supremacy and Black subjugation that had governed their society before Emancipation. Texas, along with most Southern states, quickly passed a set of restrictive laws known as Black Codes, which limited Black people’s autonomy in several arenas — from the type of property they could own to being required to work for a White guardian without pay if they were jobless. These codes also included laws that prohibited freedmen from using public facilities, owning firearms and being idle, which was subjectively defined by Whites. The fines levied for violating these laws were prohibitively high, increasing the likelihood of imprisonment. Slavery ended, but every effort was made to deprive Black people of freedom and to create another unfree labor pool in its place.
The Black Codes, combined with statewide initiatives to be tougher on crime, had a tangible impact. While the imprisonment of White people grew by 60 percent in Texas between 1865 and 1880, the imprisonment of Black people soared, increasing by 500 percent in the same period.
With a rapidly growing prison population, an ailing state budget and inadequate prison infrastructure, Texas joined with other southern states in turning control of their prison population over to private enterprises, or lessees, who paid the state per prisoner in exchange for their labor. This provided much needed money to help the state pay its debts, as well as cheap labor for the companies. But it also meant less oversight and nearly no standardized regulation beyond requiring lessees to feed, clothe and house prisoners in their charge. Reports generated by the Texas prison commissioners and superintendent from 1880 until the abolition of convict leasing in 1910 recognized that the state’s desire to generate revenue trumped its concerns over the inconsistent care, poor labor conditions and violent treatment of its incarcerated population.
Former Confederate Edward Cunningham — dubbed the “Sugar King of Texas” — was among the most well known of the lessees who funded the state and profited off Black prisoner labor. For Cunningham’s company, and other sugar producers like it, Black incarcerated people planted, harvested, hauled and processed sugar cane. The work was arduous, relentless and even life-threatening. Plantation owners and prison officials used racist ideas about biology — for instance, many believed Black men’s bodies were predisposed to working long hours in harsh weather with less risk of getting sick — to justify requiring 16-hour workdays and few breaks. Prisoners were often inadequately clothed, housed and fed making, them more susceptible to illness. The work was so brutal that Sugar Land earned the nickname “the hellhole on the Brazos.”
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