Construction crews have unearthed the graves of 95 people thought to be black prisoners forced into labor more than a century ago.
The long-forgotten cemetery was first discovered in April after the Fort Bend Independent School District broke ground for a new educational center. Since archaeologists began work in mid-June, 48 individuals have been exhumed. Of those, analyses have been completed on more than 20. Experts with the Texas Historical Commission believe the bodies belong to black convicts forced into labor camps after the abolishment of slavery.
“All of [the remains] are male, except for one female of the ones that have been analyzed so far,” said onsite bioarchaeologists Dr Catrina Whitley in a statement. “They’re ranging from 5 feet, 2 inches to 6 feet, 2 inches in height, and anywhere from 14 years of age to 50 to 70 years of age.”
Scientists say of the bodies unearthed, some could have been former slaves. All look to be of muscular build with some “misshapen bones” that suggests a life of hard labor and repetitive movements. Buried 0.6 to 1.5 meters (2 to 5 feet) beneath the surface, the discovery could help historians paint a better picture of what life looked like at this time.
"It gives us the opportunity to learn more about what has been told or under-told about the history of Sugar Land," Pat Mercado-Allinger of the Texas Historical Commission told local media.
Like many other Confederate states, Texas adopted a convict leasing system in the years following the Civil War. Beginning in 1867, private individuals could “lease” prison inmates for manual labor in exchange for room and board. Over the next four decades, convicts were forced to work long, strenuous hours with poor and often inadequate living conditions.
“I think it’s a remarkable opportunity for our community and our school district to learn much more about the history of our local region,” said Dr Charles Dupre, FBISD Superintendent of Schools, in a statement. “There are so many things we know about our history, and this is just going to add value and extend the knowledge base about Fort Bend County and Sugar Land, Texas.”
It takes 36 to 48 hours to exhume each grave, an additional eight hours or so of cleaning, and 15 more hours for analysis. Officials are now asking anyone who thinks their relatives could have been among the bodies to come forward.