The first shovel of topsoil at the site of what was to be James Reese Career and Technical Center for Fort Bend ISD initially yielded nothing of cultural significance during the district’s initial inspection, Texas Historical Commission archaeologist Brad Jones said.

But in February 2018 during construction, crews discovered the resting place of 95 individuals believed to have been part of the state’s convict leasing program, later named the Sugar Land 95. The site was named Bullhead Camp Cemetery by state and local officials.

Numerous entities, nonprofits and activists have since tried to find the best way to tell the story of the Sugar Land 95, including plans for a memorial FBISD released on Sept. 11.

"The district supports the ongoing research and studies by skilled professionals, and we appreciate them sharing their findings with us, as we are committed to telling the full story and properly memorializing the victims of state-sanctioned convict leasing,” said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, FBISD coordinator of community and civic engagement.

What's being done?

Olainu-Alade announced the completion of the memorial’s design at a Sept. 11 board meeting. The plans represent the result of work by MASS Design Group that began in spring 2022.

Plans show the park—which is projected to cost between $4 million and $4.5 million—could take years to construct as it is solely dependent on donations for the construction.

MASS Design Group’s design includes the following experiences and themes:
  • A sacred space for visitors to be with ancestors
  • Active stewardship
  • Community experiences and cultural celebrations
  • Commemorative rituals and memorializations
  • Attractively landscaped learning environment
The history

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution aimed at ending slavery in 1865 included the phrase “except as punishment for a crime,” leading to the creation of the prison convict leasing system to fill the Reconstruction Era’s labor shortage.

Many African Americans were arrested, “often convicted of petty crimes, like walking on the grass, vagrancy and stealing food,” according to a 2021 Library of Congress article. The incarcerated were leased out to private businesses that effectively privatized the state prison system.

The property FBISD purchased to build the CTE center was part of the Imperial State Prison Farm, which opened in 1909, according to Goshawk Environmental Consulting, the archaeological firm FBISD hired to perform the legally required site evaluation. Some officials and activists said they believe more deceased prisoners could be buried on former convict labor sites nearby.

Other projects

FBISD announced in July it purchased a property for a new elementary school near the site of what Jay Jenkins, co-founder of the advocacy nonprofit called the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, and independent journalist Brittney Martin said they believe could contain other convict work camp cemeteries. Martin is the host of a podcast about the discovery of the Sugar Land 95 based on three years of research and reporting.

The approximately 16 acres is located in Harvest Green, a 2,000-acre master-planned community. Construction is set to begin in mid-2024, and the school is estimated to open August 2026.

Like all public entities that purchase land once owned by the state prisons system, FBISD is required by state law to work closely with the state to ensure no cultural artifacts are found, Jones said. If artifacts are found, the district must cease building projects until the Texas Historical Commission determines it has met every effort to protect the historical elements.

What's in a name?

Former Confederate officer Littleberry A. Ellis owned agricultural property near Houston, including in Fort Bend County, according to historical data gathered by Jenkins’ group. He said he believes the Sugar Land 95 site should be named the Ellis Cemetery, not the Bullhead Cemetery, based on historical information on the group’s website.

“While the Sugar Land 95 site has been discovered, many more remain buried. The real Bullhead Camp Cemetery is likely buried under development, but there were at least a half dozen other active labor camps in the area during the convict lease era,” according to the Convict Leasing and Labor Project website.

Next steps

Olainu-Alade said FBISD has spoken with three possible descendant families of the Sugar Land 95. She said anyone who suspects they are related to someone buried in the cemetery can contact [email protected].

Marilyn Moore, the widow of Convict Leasing and Labor Project co-founder Reginald Moore, is the president of the Friends of the Sugar Land 95. The nonprofit formed in mid-2023 as a partner organization to FBISD’s fundraising efforts to memorialize the Sugar Land 95. The group aims to attain a 501(c)(3) designation to work with FBISD for large donations.

Moore said she believes in this way she can carry on her late-husband’s mission to commemorate the victims of the convict leasing program.

“He was passionate about the project to the point that it was concerning to me as his wife and the physical effect it was having on him,” she said. “[He] worked for the prison system and did the research [there]. ... He knew the history of how things were done after slavery.”