Horrific convict-system exposes dark truths about American history

Jeffrey L. Boney | 9/9/2018, 6:53 a.m.
Slavery was an extremely barbaric and traumatic legalized institution that negatively impacted the lives of many people of African descent, ...

Slavery was an extremely barbaric and traumatic legalized institution that negatively impacted the lives of many people of African descent, while making countless Southern White slave and plantation owners extraordinarily wealthy as a result of this system of forced labor.

The recent discovery of the graves of 95 bodies, the majority of who are believed to be former slaves who were a part of the state of Texas’ controversial and inhumane convict-leasing system, serves as a dark reminder about the ill-treatment people of African descent have experienced in this country.

Several months after Fort Bend ISD broke ground on an exciting new technical center, one of the construction workers noticed something in the dirt. Upon further inspection, it was one of the bodies of the former convict-leasing system workers. This could have been unearthed some time before, but no one chose to listen to the man who had been shining the light on the possibility that these bodies were there all along – Reginald Moore.

Moore, who serves as the caretaker of the Imperial Farm Cemetery in Fort Bend County, had constantly reached out to elected officials, state employees, community leaders and the school district to warn them that the bodies could be buried near the land they were seeking to build on.

Initially, no one listened and his warnings fell on deaf ears.

“I reached out to everyone I could,” Moore tells the Forward Times. “I contacted the Texas Department of Corrections, the state of Texas, elected officials, the school district, but it was as if no one cared or wanted to believe the bodies were even there.”

Moore had always believed the bodies of those former convict-leasing system workers were there, especially because of his experience as a caretaker at historical cemeteries and his work as a correctional officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from 1985 to 1988. Moore has extensive knowledge about the convict leasing system, in that he worked in the Beauford H. Jester I and III Units, which is a prison farm located in unincorporated Fort Bend County. The Jester I Farm was the first one built by the state at this site and was known as the Old Harlem Farm. While working at that site, Moore became interested in the history of the prison system and became a major researcher on the subject matter.

After leaving the prison, Moore has continued to serve as a community activist and has sought to highlight and bring awareness to the abuses suffered by prison inmates who were forced to become a part of the Sugar Land convict-leasing system.

Much of the City of Sugar Land’s evolution came as a result of the wealth generated by one family who significantly benefited from forced labor through the convict-leasing system.

Back in 1878, the State of Texas sanctioned the contract to lease prison inmates to private firm of Ed H. Cunningham and L.A. Ellis (Cunningham and Ellis). Cunningham invested more than $1 million into the purchase of property where the firm developed a sugar mill and a sugar refinery. The town of Sugar Land eventually formed around it and after Cunningham’s plantation changed hands and became the home of the Imperial Sugar Company, the leasing of convicts continued.