Can descendants of the Sugar Land 95 be found? We start our genealogical journey
This story is part of Episode 5 of "Sugar Land." Listen to the full episode above. First time here? Start with Episode 1.
In September 2020, Fort Bend ISD officials placed black tiles on each of the graves of the Sugar Land 95, which the district uncovered two years earlier during construction of a school. The tiles read “Unknown No. 1,” “Unknown No. 2,” and so on.
By that point, the district had paid for the archaeological work, the reburial of the bodies and a final report detailing all the research that had been done on the site. And the Texas Historical Commission essentially gave the project its stamp of approval and called it done.
But the Sugar Land 95 still hadn’t been identified. According to Reginald Moore’s friend Jay Jenkins, that was one of the things Moore most wanted to see happen in his lifetime.
“Until we've identified those folks definitively, we can't memorialize them,” Jenkins told us. “They're skipping that step at the school district and trying to say, ‘Well, isn't it good enough that we're just talking about this because no one talked about this before? Isn't it good enough?’ And for some people, maybe it is.”
Jenkins said he knows that wouldn’t have been enough for Moore.
“Reggie wanted sweat equity. He'd always say reconciliation and reparations,” said Jenkins. “The reconciliation part is after the reparations part. Like, you can't reconcile without repairing.”
Before the Sugar Land 95 were reburied, some of their teeth and bone samples were removed from their graves, but no DNA tests had been conducted. The school district's report included 72 names of people who may be buried at the school, but they were no closer to matching those names to bodies or finding their living relatives. And the school district also said they weren’t going to pay to do any of that.
“I don't think a school district is authorized to spend money doing DNA matches on bodies found on their property. It’s so outside of the scope of what a public school district is supposed to do with the money it has,” Fort Bend ISD’s attorney, Robert Scamardo, told us. “We recognize the value morally, but legally, we are not in a position to do that.”
So, a different group stepped up, led by archeologist Reign Clark and bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley.
“Fort Bend ISD was not funding it, but we believe that this part of the project was that important that we took it on ourselves to pursue it,” Clark said.
A new research team takes shape
Clark and Whitley, along with lab manager Abigail Fisher and genealogist Helen Graham, decided to form Principal Research Group, or PRG for short. All four had worked on the original Sugar Land 95 cemetery project and helped write Fort Bend ISD’s final report. In September of 2019, PRG received a new permit from the Texas Historical Commission. This permit authorized them to conduct studies the group said should reveal more about who the Sugar Land 95 were.
“Fort Bend ISD was not funding it, but we believe that this part of the project was that important that we took it on ourselves to pursue it."Reign Clark, archeologist
The first to get underway was Graham’s genealogical research. Graham told us she started building family trees for each of the 72 convicts on her list on FamilySearch.org. But, she said, she didn’t want to reach out to any possible descendants before the DNA research was complete.
“Even when we find more descendants, we can't tell them which set of remains belongs to their family without the analysis,” Graham said. “So, I don't want to contact anyone. I don't want to contact anyone at all until that analysis is actually done.”
That approach seemed to run counter to what Michael Blakey, the physical anthropologist who led research on the African Burial Ground in New York, told us about engaging descendant communities.
In general, Blakey said he’s seen missteps like this before.
“There are those who would say, ‘We're doing civic engagement. We're involving the voices of the descendant community.’ But it will essentially be in token ways, either after the fact they will get some opinions, or…they will get opinions from those they want to have opinions from and delegitimize the others as somehow outrageous,” said Blakey.
Graham told us she would share the family trees she’d created with us, but after several follow ups we didn’t receive them. So, in May 2021, we essentially started our own genealogical research from scratch.
The Sugar Land podcast team wades into genealogy
We turned to Nick Sheedy, the lead genealogist for the PBS television show Finding Your Roots, to make sure we were on the right track.
“For the past 10 years, I've focused on African American research and slave research, which is a tough nut to crack,” Sheedy told us. “There's a lot of discrepancies that crop up. And we see more discrepancies in the censuses with African Americans than we do with other ethnicities.”
Sheedy said there were two big reasons for that. The first boils down to human error. To conduct the census, the government hired people to go door to door and collect information about each household. That person was called an enumerator.
“How careful was this enumerator? How much did they care?” Sheedy asked.
But another reason for the discrepancies is because, during the convict lease era, some Black people genuinely didn’t know how old they were or how to spell their names.
“You're dealing with–coming out of slavery–a largely uneducated population,” Sheedy said. “In slavery, it was not important for them to know how old they were, or what their birth date was or little details like that.”
As a general rule, Sheedy advised us to take those things with a grain of salt.
“It’s really only after you've gathered every census and every possible vital record for somebody that you can look at the whole picture and you say, 'Well, what conclusions can we draw from this body of evidence?'” he said.
With that in mind, we zoomed in on Jack Mitchell, one of the names on Graham’s original list of convicts found in Fort Bend ISD’s final report. In 1892, Mitchell married a woman named Minnie Armstead. Her mother had to sign a consent form for the marriage because she was just 17 years old at the time. Eight years later, when Mitchell was arrested, records show Minnie was living in Houston’s Third Ward with their three young children–Emma, age 6; Corrine, age 5; and Joseph, age 3.
Mitchell was accused of stealing a horse and buggy belonging to a white Baptist minister named Louis Elledge on July 11, 1900. He pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary. His intake form says he arrived at a convict camp in Sugar Land on Nov. 1, when he was around 33 years old. His complexion was described as dark brown, and his eyes and hair were black. The guards noticed that he had scars all over his body, including some from gunshots.
Just 11 days after Jack Mitchell arrived at the camp, he died. Supposedly of “pernicious malarial fever.” We were able to learn all of this from public records–birth, death and marriage certificates, census entries, court files and newspaper clippings. With some people, like Mitchell, we lucked out and were able to build out entire, comprehensive family trees. But probably just as often, we couldn’t find any family at all. If the man moved around a lot or he was really young or unmarried it gets a lot harder to track them down.
Jack and Minnie Mitchell’s oldest child, Emma, gave birth to a daughter named Valarie in 1914. And in July 2021, we managed to track down one of Valarie’s grandsons — Terrence Price.
He listened as we told him a little bit about ourselves, the podcast and the Sugar Land 95. And he confirmed the details of his family tree. Jack Mitchell, the convict who died in Sugar Land, was his great-great-grandfather.
“When you know this happened to one of your ancestors — it's deplorable,” Price said. “I wish I had a picture of him, at least to see what he looked like … In my mind's eye, it's almost like I can kind of etch him out.”
We asked him if he was upset that no one had reached out to ask how he would’ve liked to see his great-great grandfather memorialized.
“No, I'm not upset because that's typical, you know?” Price said. “Until someone brings it to your attention, you just won't know … So, I'm just grateful that you taught me something about my family I did not know, about an ancestor I had that I can (now) identify by name.”
As for what should be done to memorialize the Sugar Land 95, Price told us he isn’t sure. But he knows it’s a decision that will require a lot of care, study and consultation with other descendants.
“Something needs to be done, I can tell you that. But exactly what? No, that will require me to sit down and really seriously think. What is just? What is fair?” he said.
Price added he didn’t need a DNA test to feel invested in his legacy. He didn’t care that we couldn’t tell him exactly where his ancestor was buried — he was just glad to know his story. And now, armed with this information, he’s ready to advocate for Jack Mitchell.
This story continues in Episode 6 of "Sugar Land," an investigative podcast series from The Texas Newsroom. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.