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

Five years after their bodies were discovered, ‘nobody’ is funding research on the Sugar Land 95

A sign in the foreground reads "Bullhead Camp Cemetery." In the background, yellow school busses fill a parking lot.
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom
The cemetery containing the Sugar Land 95 sits right next to Fort Bend ISD's James Reese Career and Technical Center. The remains were discovered during construction of the school in 2018.

This story is part of Episode 6 of "Sugar Land." Listen to the full episode above. First time here? Start with Episode 1.

In May 2022, more than four years after the cemetery containing the Sugar Land 95 was discovered, members of Principal Research Group offered a rare update on their progress and addressed the question on everyone’s minds: Had they identified any living descendants of the 95?

“The answer is yes,” genealogist Helen Graham said. She said she tracked down living descendants for three out of the 72 convicts on her list and spoke to one of them. And she said she was working to locate the additional 23 names that would get her to 95.

“We're searching millions of documents to identify the additional 23,” Graham said. “We have identified another individual who died at that camp, and on the conduct card it specifically says, ‘died at Ellis Number Three in Sugar Land, Texas.’ And if all of the records could be that helpful, that would be so wonderful. But, alas, they are not.”

Bio-archeologist Catrina Banks Whitley also announced that researchers at the University of Connecticut had extracted 25 DNA samples from the remains and begun the sequencing process.

“We're in a real, real exciting step because once we get this back, we can get pricing and we will be able to charge forward,” Whitley said.

This update came more than a year after we started working on this story, and we were surprised by what PRG reported. Despite being years behind them in our research, we had already tracked down living relatives for a number of men on Graham’s original list of 72 convicts, and managed to find an additional 61 names of men who could be buried in the cemetery.

 Four people stand in a row, smiling at the camera while holding certificates.
Principal Research Group
Principal Research Group members (from left to right) Helen Graham, Abigail Eve Fisher and Catrina Banks Whitley stand with Bill Martin (right), an archaeologist at the Texas Historical Commission.

We wanted to understand why PRG was progressing at such a slow pace. Last August, we met with Graham at her office at Houston Community College, where she is the dean of the Liberal Arts, Humanities and Education program.

“I’ve got to confess, the research has gone really slow because I have a full-time job. And so, I've not devoted every working, waking hour to doing this genealogical research,” she told us.

Graham said she had been working on the cemetery project since 2018, and that the genealogical work was “coming out of my pocket.”

This gave us pause. Of the four original members of Principal Research Group, Graham is the only Black person and the only one local to the area. And although she clarified that she was paid for her contributions to Fort Bend ISD’s final report, it seemed she was the only one not being paid for her research.

Reign Clark and his team at Goshawk Environmental Consulting were hired and paid by Fort Bend ISD, and Whitley and lab manager Abby Fisher were hired and paid by Goshawk for the original work they’d done, as well — the exhumations, lab analysis, everything up until their report was published in August 2020.

When we reached out to Principal Research Group, they told us “no one has been paid” for the work they had done under the second permit they received from the Texas Historical Commission.

“We have received honorariums to cover our costs for attending events to speak on behalf of PRG, but no one draws a salary nor receives funds for their work at PRG at present,” Fisher said. “We have received a single donation of $20 and have not used it.”

Five years after the cemetery was discovered, Fisher said "nobody" was funding PRG’s research. Fisher hasn’t started her isotope research. Graham is working on genealogy in her spare time and on her own dime. And, so far, they haven’t funded the DNA research.

Brenham Weekly Banner article from October 20, 1881 mentions Sebe Frosh’s arrest and sentencing.
Brenham Weekly Banner
/
Vol. 16, No. 42, Ed. 1
Tracing the identities of who could be among the Sugar Land 95 includes scouring old newspapers, like this October 20, 1881, edition of the Brenham Weekly Banner. Sebe Frosh may be one of the people buried in the cemetery.

“The work that our friends at UConn are doing, the university is paying them to do it,” Fisher said. “They have salaries and they have pots of money and grants that they have been able to get.”

We walked away from that conversation with more questions than answers. Why would PRG be involved and — as far as we could tell — in charge of the Sugar Land 95 research if they weren’t funding it and, for the most part, weren’t doing it?

We wondered: What would happen if a descendant or members of the descendant community wanted to have another researcher conduct their own studies on the remains of the Sugar Land 95? Perhaps someone with more time, resources and experience. Could they do it?

According to Whitley and Fisher, the answer is no.

“No, I hold the permit for that,” Whitley said. “And that retains us being the ones who do the research. And it gives us the permission from the state and from, you know, interested parties and everybody else to get to do that research.”

She clarified that if anyone else wanted to perform an analysis on one or more of the bone samples collected from the remains of the Sugar Land 95, they would have to secure her permission.

“But also, the data from that research belongs to us, like, belongs to PRG,” Fisher added. “It's not necessarily, like, you can't share it, but we have the responsibility to these individuals to protect them from those who have other incentives, right?”

Who has control?

When the teeth and bone samples were collected from the remains of the Sugar Land 95, PRG brought them to the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, or TARL. It’s the largest archeological repository in Texas. We asked TARL’s head of human osteology, Annie Riegert Cummings, if PRG’s claims of exclusivity in research were true.

“PRG does not own the remains,” Riegert Cummings said. “They do not have control. …They don't have, like, a non-compete here. You can't do that, no. They're human beings.”

TARL loaned some of the samples to the researchers at UConn so they could extract DNA, but because that process can be considered destructive TARL had to first get permission from the Texas Historical Commission, which is the “owning agency” of the samples, in this case.

“The THC could say, ‘We don't want other people doing this.’ Or, ‘We have another project going on,’” Riegert Cummings said. “But in no way can a company that does not have control, that is not a descendant, say, ‘There can be no other research on this.’”

PRG told us that UConn’s research on the Sugar Land 95 was being funded by grants that researchers Deborah Bolnick and Sam Archer secured on their own. Given what Riegert Cummings said, it wasn’t clear why Bolnick and Archer were still operating under PRG’s umbrella of control.

 An old black and white photograph from the convict leasing era that shows about 100 prisoners working on a construction site in Texas.
Texas State Library and Archives Commission
Prisoners on a construction site in Texas during the convict leasing era.

Emails between PRG and the UConn researchers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that, near the end of 2020 — after the project had been stalled for about a year — Archer applied for a prestigious anthropology grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and got it. She planned to use that funding for her research on the Sugar Land 95, along with another recently uncovered historic cemetery in Austin. But when PRG heard the news, the group didn’t take it well.

Whitley sent Bolnick a letter saying it was unethical for her and Archer to submit the grant application without telling her first, and that she was “shocked by [their] effrontery.”

“At this point, neither you nor Samantha can discuss the Sugar Land 95 with any public forum …” Whitley wrote. “Neither you nor Sam are given permission to give public lectures, interviews, or discuss this project … with any outside individuals. …If Samantha can continue with the research, we will be included in any discussions and guidance regarding her dissertation research as it applies to the Sugar Land 95.”

Bolnick and Archer planned to use the grant to pay for materials like the chemicals they use and to help cover the cost of having the DNA sequenced.

It seemed clear to us that PRG wanted to be the only ones telling the story of the Sugar Land 95. The group’s members told us no one was allowed to do genetic research on the remains without going through them. They barred the UConn researchers from discussing their work and threatened to take the project away from them. Then, in September, Graham emailed to ask us to make the family trees we’ve created on Ancestry.com private.

We decided not to because we hope that people who don’t know they might be a descendant of the Sugar Land 95 can find this information and engage with the project if they so choose.

 A black sign reads "Bullhead Camp Cemetery"
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom
Signs at the Sugar Land 95 cemetery identify it as "Bullhead Camp Cemetery," a name the hosts of Sugar Land say is incorrect.

We’ve spent countless hours talking to each member of PRG, studying their findings, listening to their presentations and reading their emails. And we don’t believe that they’re purposely stalling this research. What the evidence does suggest is less sinister but no less frustrating: PRG is in over its head. By the group’s own admission, it doesn’t have the money, the time or the necessary expertise to complete the work it set out to do. And yet, it has not given up control.

Then there’s the issue of the cemetery name. Throughout this series, we’ve referred to the cemetery here as the Sugar Land 95 cemetery. But officially, it has a different name: The Bullhead Camp Cemetery. That’s the name on the signs, it’s the name Reign Clark and the other researchers used throughout their 535-page report, and it’s the name that will appear on the official state historical marker soon to be erected on this site. So why, you might ask, haven’t we been calling it the Bullhead Camp Cemetery all along?

Well, because it’s not the Bullhead Camp Cemetery. And if you’re thinking, "Who cares what they call it. It’s just a name on a few signs, right?"

Wrong.

We know there really is a Bullhead Camp Cemetery somewhere in Sugar Land; it just hasn’t been found yet. And because of PRG, no one’s looking for it.

This story continues in Episode 7 of "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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