A city in Texas discovered a mass grave of prison labourers. So what should it do with the bodies?

Sugar Land Town Square, Texas. Image: Ed Schiphul/Wikimedia Commons.

When archaeologists discovered the intact skeletons of 15,000 free and enslaved Africans at a construction site in lower Manhattan in 1991, the federal government – which planned to build an office building on the site – conferred with African-American communities, scholars and activists. Together, they signed an agreement to halt construction, rebury the bodies and establish a national monument on the site.

Officials in Sugar Land, Texas, chose a different path in April 2018 when they found 95 graves beneath the construction site of a new school.

A judge issued approval to exhume the bodies and, on 10 June, archaeologists hired by the school district opened up the wooden coffins.

They contained the remains of black prison labourers forced to work on Texas’ sugar cane plantations from 1878 to 1911. This form of indentured servitude, called “convict-leasing,” was common across the American South after the Civil War.

School construction has continued during the excavation. The city of Sugar Land, which owns most of the land occupied by the burial ground, quickly decided that the exhumed bodies would be reburied elsewhere.

Protecting Texas’ black history

The contrast between these two cases is illustrative.

As an urban planning professor whose scholarship focuses on community development and historic preservation, I can attest that it is not that unusual to find unmarked black cemeteries in the South. After all, enslaved Africans comprised 35 per cent of the region’s population in 1860, according to census data.

Yet, too often, public discussion about how to handle these sensitive sites occurs only after graves have been disturbed.

My research on Texas’ black settlements and cemeteries suggests that such discoveries will only increase as its fast-growing cities expand into what was once rural land.

Texas was the last American state to officially end slavery, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Soon, Texas was home to hundreds of freedom colonies, towns founded by landowning African-American families descended from enslaved people.

My Texas Freedom Colonies Project Atlas and Survey has found archival and ethnographic evidence that African-Americans established more than 557 freedom colonies throughout eastern and central Texas between 1865 and 1920. Fort Bend County, where the Sugar Land burial ground was discovered, is itself home to five freedom colonies.

Today, memories and stories, a few homesteads and a cemetery are all that remain of the once-prosperous Texas communities that insulated African-Americans from the racial terror that followed Emancipation and Reconstruction.

These are critical parts of U.S. history. But many freedom colonies’ cemeteries have already been paved over, bulldozed or hemmed in by development.

What the law requires

In theory, Texas law should protect these heritage sites.

By law, once a cemetery or grave site is found, the property owner must be notified and the finding recorded with the county clerk.

If the cemetery is more than 50 years old and abandoned, the Texas Historical Commission takes jurisdiction over the site. It must consult with the dead’s next of kin, and can require exhumation to be conducted noninvasively, using ground-penetrating radar.

The state does not, however, outline how or where unearthed remains should be reburied, nor require that community members be involved in that decision.

Federal law, which comes into play when a burial site may be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, is more robust.


In such cases, construction must be halted while officials determine if the newly discovered burial grounds qualify based on the historic significance of the dead, the events surrounding their death, the burial materials or their prehistoric value.

I believe work on the entire school project should have been paused the moment the bodies were discovered. The Sugar Land mass grave has clear historic relevance, both as an endangered place and a remnant of the horrific but little-known chapter of black history that followed emancipation and Reconstruction.

Sugar Land official complied with Texas law, but they did not recognise the site’s national significance as a graveyard of the former Imperial State Prison Farm.

So the National Historic Preservation Act – which requires local officials to consult with the state and other “interested parties,” including the descendants of prison labourers throughout Texas – was not triggered.

Black history and suburban growth

Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country. With little to no regulatory constraints, suburban developments – many named after plantation owners – have proliferated in major metro areas.

My ancestors were enslaved and forcibly brought to this area of Texas in the 1830s. Since I was a child, relatives have shared stories of the black bodies buried beneath suburbs in Sugar Land and Missouri City.

Indeed, Sugar Land officials knew that they might discover an old cemetery on the site of the proposed school.

For decades, a local advocate, Reginald Moore, had told local officials that prison labourers were likely buried in the area. As a result, an archaeologist was already on hand when the graveyard was discovered.

Sugar Land’s sugar factory in 2012. Image: Ed T/Flickr/creative commons.

Exhumation occurred within days, without family members’ permission. News helicopters provided the public with aerial views of the bodies in wooden boxes.

Archaeologists determined that the dead had been black men, some as young as 14 years old. Their misshapen bones were a sign of repeated hard labour.

By July, images of handcuffs, chains and other artifacts buried with the bodies were being broadcast internationally.

The Southern convict-leasing system, which some historians consider have called “slavery by another name,” was laid bare for the world – and relatives of the dead – to see.

Memorialising a difficult history

The sudden media visibility changed the dynamics on the grave site.

In the months since the discovery, Sugar Land has begun consulting with outside groups, including Moore and his Convict Leasing and labour Project, on the process of reinterment and memorialising the bodies.

Moore wants the remains reburied at the nearby Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, which his group runs. He and others also say a museum should be dedicated to convict leasing.

The African Burial Ground National Monument went up in New York in 2007, after an excavation discovered over 400 skeletons six years prior. Image: recreation.gov.

The Black United Front, a civil rights group, hopes that the remains will be DNA tested so that reparations may be paid to the descendants.

Preserving while growing

When Native American remains are discovered, federal law mandates a very specific and careful set of next steps.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act recognises the rights of “Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony”.

No specific laws recognise the cultural and historic significance of African diaspora sites. That makes it much harder to protect black history.

Too often, African-American heritage sites like Sugar Land are simply paved over.


Of the 114 previously unmapped Texas freedom colonies my team has so far identified, for example, 21 are in high-risk locations near Texas’ fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio or Austin metro areas.

State officials now have the opportunity to reach out to freedom colony descendants, historians and experts about appropriate protection of the sites before the inevitable development begins in the area.

Of course, Texas is not the only state facing this problem. And the law doesn’t have all the answers.

The Conversation

The United States was built with black labour. As its population inexorably expands, city planners must look beyond the law – to technology, cultural practice, community and history – to reconcile preservation with growth.

Andrea Roberts, Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.