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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.