In 1867, Texas began leasing out its convicts to labor for private companies, and former plantations across the state were transformed into prison farms. The vast majority of the men and women who toiled on them were African-Americans, either the children of slaves or former slaves themselves, who came from states like Arkansas and Louisiana as well as from across Texas. The graves in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery are those of the African-Americans who worked in the convict leasing program and the guards on the Ellis Plantation’s sugar mill and surrounding sugar cane fields.
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The City recognizes the historical significance of the discovery and the importance of honoring and preserving these individuals with the utmost dignity, and memorializing the area’s history for future generations.
The cemetery is located in Fort Bend County near Highway 6 and US 90-A.
In 1867, Texas began leasing out its convicts to labor for private companies, and former plantations across the state were transformed into prison farms. The vast majority of the men and women who toiled on them were African-Americans, either the children of slaves or former slaves themselves, who came from states like Arkansas and Louisiana as well as from across Texas. The graves in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery are those of the African-Americans who worked in the convict leasing program and the guards. The cemetery has at least 31 graves, with the earliest dated from 1912. Three graves are post-dated the 1930s. The Imperial State Prison Farm was a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) men's prison. It was one of the first penal institutions owned by the State of Texas and opened in 1909 on the Imperial Sugar plantation. In 1930 the facility was renamed the Central State Prison Farm.
FBISD will determine if and how DNA testing will be performed prior to interment in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery. Under the terms of the MOU with FBISD, the City does not assume responsibility for the individuals until they have been reburied in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery. Any DNA testing would need to be conducted prior to reinternment. The City does not support, nor do we feel it would be appropriate, to exhume the individuals for DNA testing after reinterment.
While the convict leasing program was reprehensible, The City of Sugar Land was not incorporated until December 1959, long after the program ended. No inmate labor has ever been used in building the City’s infrastructure, including any of our city halls. Convict labor leasing had been over for several decades when the City of Sugar Land was incorporated and was gradually phased out of the area during the 1910s, when Isaac Kempner and William Eldridge established Sugar Land as a company-owned town.
Contractors working for FBISD discovered the individuals during construction of a new school on the site.
95 unmarked graves were discovered on the site.
The individuals are of African-American males ranging in age from 14 to over 70. The convict leasing system started in 1857 and operated until the early 1900s.
Yes, construction at the site has ceased.
Numerous entities are involved including the Texas Historical Commission, Fort Bend County, FBISD and the City of Sugar Land.
It is our understanding the FBISD plans to initiate educational initiatives regarding the historic discovery. The City will work with all entities to participate, as appropriate, in efforts to honor those interred in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery.
The cemetery was dedicated to the City by LID 17 in October 2006. Sugar Land City Council approved Resolution No. 12-02 on Feb. 7, 2012. The resolution authorized the purchase of 63.331 acres of land for park purposes and the purchase of 11.426 acres of land for airport purposes from NNP-TELFAIR, LP per the 2003 Development Agreement.
The City of Sugar Land negotiated with Newland Real Estate Group, developer of the Telfair residential community in Fort Bend County, to accept responsibility for the ownership of the cemetery, ensuring this historical property does not disappear through neglect like many others throughout the country. The Imperial Farm Cemetery was declared a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2007 in an application that was made in collaboration with the Fort Bend Historical Commission and approved by the Texas Historical Commission. The City has protected and maintained the prison cemetery property since taking ownership.
The city zoned the cemetery and surrounding property as parkland, a designation that protects and preserves the property. The city went further and purchased all of the land around the cemetery. We planned enhancements that were intended to make the cemetery more accessible and highlight its historical importance.
The city routinely provides cemetery access to the Texas Slave Descendants Society to host events there.
An archeological survey of the property was previously completed by Newland Communities as required by federal law.
The Fort Bend County Historical Commission is charged with carrying out a continuing survey of the county’s historical buildings, sites, cemeteries, archeological sites, both public and private, and other historical features within the county, and reports to the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court and the Texas Historical Commission. Any new development that could have an impact on a historic site such as this must be vetted through the Fort Bend Historical Commission. The Texas Historical Commission performed ground-penetration studies of the property in May 2016.
The city will comply with all required laws prior to any future parkland development surrounding the cemetery.
The city’s plans for a community park in Telfair were halted by the failed passage of an $18.5 million bond proposition. Even though the regional park was defeated in the bond election by residents of Sugar Land, that property is still designated for future parkland in our Parks, Recreation Master Plan.
The city is committed to honoring the history of the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery and the surrounding prison operation:
The City of Sugar Land created the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation and contributes funding to ensure the preservation of the city’s history. The Sugar Land Heritage Foundation has been collecting local historical documents for a museum opened in 2018 at the Imperial Refinery site. This museum will eventually include a diversity of exhibits documenting the experiences and contributions of African-Americans and all others. Community groups are encouraged to support the development of the museum.
The stated mission of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project is to document the abuses of forced labor in the United States past and present. That includes slavery, convict leasing, and current forced labor arrangements in US prisons. The published goal of CLLP is to “abolish the last vestiges of involuntary servitude in the nation to bring the US into compliance with Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The stated vision of the CLLP is to provide a public forum on the impact of slavery, convict leasing, and current forced labor arrangements inside US prisons. According to their literature the group envisions:
The Texas Slave Descendant’s Society was founded as a Texas General Business in 2006 by Reginald Moore. Much of the Society’s activity has been to document the abuses of Texas’ prison labor system. The Society has worked with the Woodson Research Center at Rice University to research the convict labor system in Fort Bend County. The organization hosts an annual Labor Day event at the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery and the City routinely hosts TSDS at events at the cemetery.
Representatives from the National Black United Front met with FBISD Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre to discuss a list of 15 concerns they have regarding the individuals found on FBISD property. Foremost among their concerns is a request that DNA testing be conducted before the individuals are reinterred. Other concerns involve:
After extensive discussion and consideration, the task force formally recommended two options. The task force’s first option was to re-bury the remains at the original site where they were found. The task force believes this option is the most respectful to the remains because a burial site is considered sacred ground. However, the task force understands that there may be certain legal restrictions that will not allow reburial on school district property and would in that case recommend reburial at the city of Sugar Land’s cemetery.
Sugar Land City Council approved an interlocal agreement with Fort Bend ISD that allows the school district to re-inter remains at the city’s cemetery if they so choose. City Council’s decision was consistent with the task force’s recommendation, which included two options.
No. The interlocal agreement allows Fort Bend ISD to consider the city’s cemetery as an option for reburial.
As the property owner where the human remains were found, Fort Bend ISD has the responsibility of evaluating suitable burial locations to re-inter the bodies to present to the court for final approval.