Preliminary analysis of the historic cemetery discovered at Fort Bend ISD’s construction site of the new James Reese Career and Technical Center indicate the human remains may be those of individuals who were part of a former prisoner labor program, according to a statement from the school district.
It is possible archaeologists may find other grave sites, and work crews plan to dig further so the entire site is secured, said Oscar Perez, chief operations officer for FBISD. Construction around the site will continue, although the building design will be altered to allow researchers to complete their work.
The CTE center is expected to open in August 2019 as planned, FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said.
A court granted FBISD a petition to exhume the remains in June, and archaeologists and anthropologists are in the process of conducting forensic research on the remains found in the 95 graves.
The site of investigation spans 1.25 acres, and the cemetery itself makes up 0.75 acres, said Reign Clark, cultural resources director of Austin-based Goshawk Environmental Consulting, a firm contracted to supervise the excavations. Experts have exhumed 48 individuals and 20-25 have been analyzed as of July 16.
“Of that population that’s been analyzed, we have all males but one,” Clark said. “We do have one female. Every individual analyzed so far had traits of African American heritage.”
Researchers estimate some individuals to be 45-70 years old at the time of the burial, and others were likely younger than 20 years old, he said. Evidence indicates many of the individuals had large muscles and were laborers for much of their lives.
Based on the history of the land use and ownership, the burial of the remains date between 1878 to approximately 1910—from the time of the convict labor camp’s establishment to its dissolution, Clark said. Among the findings from the site were chains, bricks, spikes, hoes and files.
Dupre said the school district was first alerted to the potential presence of a cemetery by Reginald Moore, chairman of the Texas Slave Descendants Society, before construction work began.
“When we uncovered the first grave site, it really was an overwhelming feeling,” Dupre said. “We’re dealing with people—real people who lived, people who worked hard, people who died right here. I’ve been dedicated and our board has been dedicated to treating everybody with dignity and respect throughout this entire process.”
A historian, Moore hopes to establish a museum, educating others on the region’s past and paying tribute to former slaves and others who were unjustly subjugated under the prison labor system—another form of slavery, he said.
“The story should be told—the whole story—and it should be done by myself as a curator, the Texas Slave Descendants Society,” Moore said.
The process for analysis may last another two months and is expected to be completed by September, Clark said.
The graves are unmarked, making it more challenging to determine how to move forward with reburial, said Patricia Mercado-Allinger, director of the Texas Historical Commission’s Archeology Division.
“We don’t know who these individuals are,” Mercado-Allinger said. “Certainly, as many studies as possible will be conducted, but I don’t know if we’ll ever have individual names attached to these burials. If there’s anybody in the community that believes they may have ancestors that might be out here, they can come forward and be part of the discussion about how the reinterments occur.”
Reinterment would require another, separate court process, Mercado-Allinger said. Potential possibilities for reburial is the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, located on Easton Avenue.
“But again, until we get some input from descendants and other stakeholders, it would be premature to say,” she said. “The law says, assuming that you know who these people were, their descendants would be the ones to determine [decisions regarding reinterment]. Well, we don’t have that information, so I think the next best thing you could do is to call upon people in the community and people who might have a connection with this group of people that were buried.”