Acknowledging the layered history of Sugar Land, particularly the discovery of a mass grave where 95 incarcerated people were uncovered in 2018, will be a hallmark of the welcome ceremony held by Honeyland Festival organizers on Nov. 10.

What’s happening?

The inaugural festival will honor Black culture through food, beverage and music, bringing award-winning talents such as Mary J. Blige and Jazmine Sullivan on Nov. 11-12 to The Crown Festival Park in Sugar Land.

Before the festival begins, its organizers will host Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman and other speakers to discuss the Indigenous and Black history of the land as well as the importance of celebrating Black culture and giving back to the community, according to an Nov. 3 news release on the ceremony.

Taking a step back

Routine construction in early 2018 for Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center led to unearthing the remains of 95 individuals—all who are suspected of being Black and who are believed to have died at the Bullhead Convict Labor Camp during Texas’ convict labor leasing program in the late 19th century, Community Impact reported in June 2022.

The convict leasing system was used to help Southern states supplement their depleted treasuries in the wake of the Civil War. Though not unique to Sugar Land nor Texas, the system was known for the cruelty it inflicted on its prisoners, said Matthew Mancini, chair of the Department of History at Southwest Missouri State University and author of the 1996 book “One Dies, Get Another, Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928.”

In 1878, Sugar Land business owners Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis signed a lease to take on 1,564 convicts, according to Mancini’s book. Of those, 700 were assigned to cut sugarcane; the rest were subleased out for major profits, according to Mancini’s book.

Both Mancini and Robin Cole, president of civil rights group The Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land, told Community Impact in 2022 that many Black men were arrested for trumped-up charges and put in the convict leasing system.

“So they came up with things that would be considered to be a crime,” Cole told Community Impact in the 2022 article. “If you walked on the wrong side of the street, if you were unemployed, if you were an orphan, if they said, ‘Oh, you’re out past the curfew. That’s $10. And now you’re a criminal because you can’t pay that $10.’”

Going forward

The welcome ceremony comes in addition to the festival’s Impact Program initiatives, which include educational and career programs for Houston ISD students and efforts to address food insecurity in marginalized communities.

For example, its Food Recovery For Good program will take any unused goods from catering areas and food vendors as well as items left by attendees and donate them to local community partners, per an Oct. 25 release from festival representatives.

Quote of note

Welcome ceremony speakers, including René Spellman, chief impact officer of media company Obsidianworks, will honor the Sugar Land 95 while uncovering the deeper purpose behind the Honeyland Festival, per the Oct. 25 release.

"In Sugar Land, Texas, where a bitter past once loomed on a sugar plantation, the Honeyland Festival blooms with the sweetness of creativity and joy,” Spellman said in a statement. “Beyond music and culture, Honeyland Festival plants seeds of lasting change by addressing systemic inequities faced by Black creators. It fosters growth, cultivating opportunities for healing."