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.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.