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How the discovery of an unmarked cemetery containing 95 bodies forced a Texas city to confront its history.

Relocate or rebury? How the final resting place of the Sugar Land 95 played out in court

Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom

This story is part of Episode 3 of "Sugar Land." Listen to the full episode above. First time here? Start with Episode 1.

Nearly three decades before the cemetery containing the Sugar Land 95 was found, the federal government made a similar discovery in Lower Manhattan. The remains of an estimated 15,000 free and enslaved Africans who’d lived and worked there in the 1600s and 1700s were buried just 30 feet beneath the city.

Just like Sugar Land, this discovery shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The New York landowners were also warned there could be bodies on that site, but they still moved forward with construction. Once bodies were found, Black New Yorkers, activists and academics pushed for construction to stop, for the site to be preserved and for the remains to be respected. In response, the building’s design was changed, a memorial was planned, and renowned physical anthropologist Michael Blakey stepped in as project director.

As a Black man himself, Blakey said he felt it was critical to consult with members of the Black community and possible descendants of the deceased before starting his research. He calls this group “the descendant community.”

“It’s people from that area, Black people from that area, whose families were enslaved there, and who show that they care,” Blakey said. “Because once that happens, we have the ethical obligation of not doing them harm. Once they show that they care, they can be harmed”

Not only did Blakey want the descendant community’s blessing to conduct research on the site and the remains, but he also wanted them to decide what – if any – studies would be done.

“These remains do not belong to anyone other than their descendants,” Blakey said.

Years later, in Sugar Land, Reginald Moore learned about Blakey’s research. It convinced him the descendants of the Sugar Land 95 should also get to decide how their ancestors' remains were handled and memorialized.

 A black marble wall with the words "African Burial Ground National Monument" etched into it.
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom
After bodies were found during the 1991 construction of a Manhattan office building, architects redesigned the building to eliminate the section that would have covered the graves. The site is now home to a national monument.

But the decision wasn’t his to make, and the Fort Bend Independent School District said eliminating the wing of the building planned for the cemetery site would cost $18 million. So, in November 2018, Fort Bend ISD asked Judge James H. Shoemake of the 434th District Court in Fort Bend County for permission to move the bodies to a nearby city-owned cemetery so construction could continue.

Unlike a regular courtroom drama where two sides battle it out in front of a judge and a jury, Fort Bend ISD was the only party in this case. By the time the school district went to court, it was nearing a crucial deadline: Fort Bend ISD wanted to open the school in August 2019. If they couldn’t estimate when the school would be done or what the final design would look like, they couldn't let students enroll in classes or hire instructors. So, Fort Bend ISD hoped Judge Shoemake would sign off on their plan to move the bodies right away.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Moore and other community members approached the bench, telling the judge they thought the descendants of the 95 should be the ones to decide if, when and where their bodies were moved.

In its petition, the school district said the identities of the Sugar Land 95 were, quote, “unknown and cannot be reasonably determined.” But that wasn’t entirely true. Two months before that court hearing, Fort Bend ISD’s archeologist Reign Clark told community members his team had already found the names of some people who could be buried in the cemetery.

 A portrait of Judge Shoemake
Photo courtesy Judge Shoemake
Judge James H. “Jim” Shoemake took on Fort Bend ISD’s case in November 2018.

“At this point, we have six individuals by name, and we have a lot of information about those individuals,” Clark told the task force convened by the City of Sugar Land in September 2018.

Clark and his team found those six names while sifting through old Texas prison records, and said they were “almost undoubtedly buried” on the school construction site.

That concerned Judge Shoemake.

“They were giving mixed signals. We don't know who's here, but we do know who's here,” Shoemake said. “Because of the circumstances, I wasn't going to sign off on doing very much without having more information.”

Instead, Shoemake appointed a local attorney to help him determine what the district knew about the identities of the Sugar Land 95 — and what other information was still out there.

The school district repeatedly objected, but Shoemake was determined to get answers. As the court case dragged on, pressure was mounting against the district’s plan.

Political pressure

In February 2019, almost a year after the first bones were discovered, Congressman Al Green and half a dozen other elected officials sent a letter to Fort Bend ISD urging them not to relocate the Sugar Land 95.

“An injustice has been perpetrated, but we have an opportunity to right a wrong,” said Green, a Democrat who represents parts of Houston and Missouri City.

Green and others said they would attend the next school board meeting to discuss alternatives to the district’s plan.

“It was just kind of this ‘aha’ [moment]. Everybody realized we can't do anything on that site. We've got to leave it alone; we have to leave it untouched."
Former Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre

Maybe it was the political pressure — or maybe it just seemed like the quickest way forward — but on Feb. 18, 2019, the school district changed course.

“It was just kind of this ‘aha’ [moment]. Everybody realized we can't do anything on that site. We've got to leave it alone; we have to leave it untouched,” former Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said. “It just crystallized that we can finish this building, but we're going to have to modify the plans and turn that space into some sort of memorial, we have to do that.”

Fort Bend ISD said it would stop trying to move the bodies, and instead work out a new deal to transfer ownership of the cemetery to Fort Bend County. Moore was thrilled. After a full year of back and forth, he was relieved the Sugar Land 95 were going to be returned to their original resting place, and he had faith that Fort Bend County would work with him to properly memorialize and dignify the 95.

All through the spring and summer of 2019, construction crews worked to finish the newly redesigned school, and the county and school district negotiated. Finally, in July, they struck a deal: Fort Bend ISD announced it would donate 10 acres of land, including the cemetery, and $1 million to the county.

Since Fort Bend ISD no longer planned to move the bodies, district officials went back to Judge Shoemake to drop their court case in July 2019. But he wouldn’t let them. Shoemake maintained that Fort Bend ISD needed his permission to do anything regarding the cemetery — including reburying the bodies where they were found.

The district still hadn’t shared the list of names it had been compiling — or any information on the possible identities of the Sugar Land 95.

“They wouldn't turn loose any of the information whatsoever. And that tells you something about their motivation and their honesty,” Shoemake said.

Without district court approval, the Fort Bend County Commissioners weren’t willing to move forward.

“Negotiation stalled over the question of whether court approval was needed to rebury the remains where they were found,” Fort Bend ISD’s attorney Robert Scamardo said. “The district's position was that since we were no longer seeking the court's permission to remove the remains, or the cemetery designation, it was unnecessary.”

 Rectangular plaques mark the graves of the Sugar Land 95. Fort Bend ISD's James Reese Career and Technical Center is in the background.
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom
Today, plaques mark each gravesite where bodies of the Sugar Land 95 were reburied next to Fort Bend ISD’s completed James Reese Career and Technical Center. The school opened in August 2019.

So, the district pivoted yet again. In September 2019, Dupre said the district would be moving forward with its plan to rebury the bodies where they were found “with or without an agreement with the county.”

“Our legal guidance said we were on solid footing, and that we would just deal with it within the courts if there were any negative repercussions,” Dupre said.

On Nov. 17, 2019, the district hosted a “blessing the ground” ceremony ahead of the reburial, which was scheduled to take place over the next few weeks. Several dozen people gathered at the James Reese Career and Technical Center to sing hymns, light candles and ring a bell to memorialize the 95.

Ten days later, Moore went to the school hoping to monitor the reburial, but police officers ordered him to leave. Not one to leave things alone, Moore returned later that day. According to a report filed by Fort Bend ISD police officer Robbie Hilliard III, he was dispatched there and made aware of a quote “suspicious Black male attempting to take photos of the Sugar Land 95 gravesite.”

An officer pulled up behind Moore’s truck, so Moore circled the parking lot and left. Hilliard then got a call from his sergeant instructing him to issue Moore a criminal trespass warning. He followed Moore out of the parking lot down the street and pulled him over. Hilliard wrote that Moore said, “I don’t blame you …You’re just doing your job. They sent you brothers out here so they would not have to send a white officer; because they don’t want the white officers to look like they’re racist. I’ve been waiting for this ticket, please believe me.”

In hindsight, Moore’s friends and family said that day marked the beginning of the end for the man they lovingly called “Reggie.”

“You could just tell that it broke his spirit a little bit,” Moore’s friend Jay Jenkins said. “I don't think he expected them to go through with it. And just the futility of, ‘What can we do about it?’”

This story continues in Episode 4of "Sugar Land," an investigative podcast series from The Texas Newsroom. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Naomi Reed and Brittney Martin are the hosts of "Sugar Land,” an investigative series from The Texas Newsroom.
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