Bones were discovered in an unmarked cemetery in Texas. Who gets to decide what happens to them?
This story is part of Episode 2 of "Sugar Land." Listen to the full episode above.
It was April 2018, and 18 graves had just been uncovered on the site where Fort Bend ISD was building its new career and technical center. Superintendent Charles Dupre was tasked with breaking the news to the district’s board of trustees.
In an email, Dupre told the trustees he was working with the Texas Historical Commission to figure out what to do next. “We do know that it will be necessary to seek a court order to move the remains," he wrote.
One week later, the district’s lawyers met with the City of Sugar Land. They wanted to discuss moving the bodies to a nearby cemetery the city owns.
But that’s not what local activist Reginald Moore wanted to see happen. Near the turn of the 20th century, the land currently occupied by the rapidly growing Houston suburb was home to the largest convict leasing camp in Texas.
Convict leasing became common practice in the South following the Civil War. It allowed white landowners a way to continue using human labor at a low cost — and to continue exploiting Black people. For years, Moore had been advocating for the city to locate and identify the bodies of Black men who died under the convict leasing system.
Moore told a reporter for Texas Monthly that he thought the district should stop construction and preserve the cemetery right where it was.
“That would be a sad thing if they disinter those graves and remove them like that,” Moore said at the time. “They’ve disrespected these people so much, and they’re trying to disrespect them again.”
By the end of the summer of 2018, a total of 95 graves had been uncovered on the site.
“The attorney said the district cannot maintain a cemetery. So, what are your options at that point?” Dupre told us. “Even if you left it alone, at that point, it's a cemetery. Someone's got to manage it. So, if we can’t manage it, then we had worked out an arrangement with the city to exhume and reinter the bodies in another place.”
That was easier said than done. To remove remains from a cemetery in Texas, permission must be granted from the deceased's next of kin. But in this case, Fort Bend ISD said it didn’t know who the deceased were. So Catrina Banks Whitley, an independent bio-archeologist based in North Texas, was hired.
When starting a new job, she told us she tries “to make sure that I don't really know anything about the people first. Because that makes it to where I am just looking at this individual and working with this individual, and letting them tell me their story.”
In June 2018, four months after the first bones were found, a judge gave Whitley permission to exhume the bodies and study them. She pulled each set of remains out of the ground, placed them in labeled cardboard boxes, and brought them to a mobile lab on site for further examination.
She compiled a list of all the characteristics she attributed to each skeleton. Take Burial Number 6, for example: This person is described as a Black male, standing about 5'5 and was between the ages of 20 and 30 when he died. Whitley said she could tell all of these things based on the length, shape and markings on the bones.
“It was only as we were moving through this process and we were continually finding males and I was continually identifying individuals that were of African American ancestry, it had started to become very clear what it is we were working with,” Whitley said during an October 2021 presentation at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville.
Being able to tell someone is Black based on their bones might sound reminiscent of phrenology or eugenics, but experts in the field say it’s really more about interpreting probabilities than anything else. Just looking at a skeleton and seeing a trait that’s statistically more likely to appear in an African American person doesn’t necessarily mean that person is African American, but it does means it’s more likely.
“These are frequencies. They're not rules, they're trends,” Phoebe Stubblefield told us. Stubblefield is a forensic anthropologist working to locate and identify some of those killed in the Tulsa Race Massacre. It’s estimated hundreds of residents were murdered there in 1921 when a white mob destroyed Tulsa’s thriving African-American district.
Stubblefield and Whitley are more or less in agreement about how these types of determinations are made. But Stubblefield, who is Black, said the ability to gain the trust of the Black community is one of the major benefits of hiring an African-American archeologist to lead research on African-American sites. (Whitley is white.)
“You may avoid some of the obvious conflicts of, ‘Can I trust white people?’ I still see echoes of that or just full on effects of that with Tulsa,” Stubblefield said. “Like if the Black archaeologist says we exhumed 20 graves, then it's 20 graves. But if the white archaeologist says that (the Black community goes), ‘What are you hiding?’”
What should we do with the bodies?
By September 2018, the City of Sugar Land had convened a community task to discuss the cemetery. Whitley attended the first meeting along with Moore. They were joined by lead archeologist Reign Clark, a lawyer for Fort Bend ISD, various academics, and representatives from the county historical commission and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The school district’s lawyer, Robert Scamardo, laid out the district’s plans to request permission from a local judge to move the bodies away from the construction site.
“We believe that the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery is a perfect location,” Scamardo told the group. “It’s historically linked, it’s nearby. And there are details, of course, that still need to be worked out. But that's the intention.”
Clark and Whitley then explained that DNA analysis could be performed on the remains to identify the Sugar Land 95.
“Isotope analysis and DNA analysis, you can extract material from the teeth of the individuals – an incisor and a molar,” Clark said.
He said both tests require removing bones from the graves and destroying them. And to do that, Fort Bend ISD had to, once again, get permission, this time from the Texas HIstorical Commission.
A spokeswoman for Fort Bend ISD told the group the district had already submitted a formal request to the commission and received a response.
“The answer was, ‘We hear what you're saying, but we don't want to grant permission to do this until you've done a really thorough job getting all stakeholder input before we allow you to destroy this material,’” the spokeswoman said.
Of the 20 people sitting around the table at that first task force meeting, Moore was one of only four Black people. Most everyone else was white. The task force unanimously approved of DNA testing, but, in hindsight, that meeting raised some red flags for us.
The first was feasibility. It’s not enough to just say, “We want to test the DNA.” We also wondered, who was going to do the analysis? And where? Who was going to pay for it?
None of those questions were answered that night.
Then there was the larger issue of consent. ‘Should it really have been up to the people sitting around that table to decide that bones should be removed from these graves and destroyed?’ we thought. Or to have the DNA of African Americans tested and used for all kinds of things, including identification?
Whitley spent nearly two minutes at the meeting listing all the other research that could be done using this genetic material.
“We can look at genetic heritage and track their lineal descent back to Africa,” Whitley said. “We can look at sickle cell anemia. We'll be able to look at if they are carrying a sickle trait and at the pathological conditions and the health conditions of the individuals. And that research can actually be turned over and be used by modern medical professionals to help children and family members and people today.”
Black communities have a long history of being exploited by science. The academic community is only now beginning to reckon with the racist practices of collecting the remains of Black and Indigenous communities that fill their research labs. Stubblefield, the Tulsa researcher, said that having a Black researcher lead studies on an African-American cemetery increases the likelihood that the remains will be handled properly.
“When I entered academia, that's how we rolled,” Stubblefield told us. “‘Oh, let's get a bone collection’ – bone hoarding, as I like to call it. And that’s just not needed.”
Today, people can consent to donate their bodies to science after they die, and families can grant scientists consent to study the ancient bones of their ancestors. While there’s no one right way to respect the dead, informed consent at least respects the living.
“I'm not trying to create a database here,” Stubblefield said. “All I'm trying to do is get these people ID’d and sent home. I want to give their families a chance to reconnect with these people and their own history.”
But as the task force members would soon realize, the Sugar Land 95 wouldn’t be reconnected with their history any time soon.
This story continues in Episode 3 of "Sugar Land," an investigative podcast series from The Texas Newsroom. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.