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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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