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, ...

The organizations invited to participate as a part of the task force include: Reginald Moore, of the Texas Slave Descendants Society (a group now called the Convict Leasing and Labor Project); City of Sugar Land; Fort Bend Independent School District; the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation; the Fort Bend Historical Commission; the Texas Historical Commission; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Houston Area Urban League; the Fort Bend Church; the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Embassy Church; Rice University Professor Caleb McDaniel; Slavery by Another Name author Douglas Blackmon; and members of the Sugar Land community. Sugar Land officials are also working on a detailed agreement with Fort Bend ISD for the future relocation of the bodies to the city’s Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, located at 6440 Easton Ave.

The city will fund costs associated with layout, design and location, as well as maintenance of the city’s cemetery. While a funding source has not yet been identified, the city will also work with community groups to explore funding opportunities for future park development that will include walking paths, interpretive historical information and parking, surrounding the city-owned Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery. The city will continue its coordination with the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, a group established by the city to preserve and document the community’s rich history – including the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery on the city’s property, according to Sugar Land officials. The Fort Bend Independent School District will be responsible for the continued exhumation on their property; submitting a petition to the court for removal and reburial; funding costs associated with storage, new burial vessels, transportation, interment and security; and procurement and placement of temporary markers for each grave.

Slavery and forced labor have been a major part of the foundation of the United States since its inception, but when that system was interrupted as a result of President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it hit Southern White slave owners and plantation owners extremely hard in their pocket books.

The impact of this one legislative action was extremely significant for Southern White slave and plantation owners who immediately found themselves having to continue their business operations without the ability to forcefully and legally use the labor of Black slaves.

Because they could no longer rely on legalized slavery to force Black slaves to help them continue building their flourishing business enterprises, those same Southern White slave and plantation owners worked with their state governments to come up with creative new ways to use the law to their advantage.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and included verbiage that attempted to officially abolish slavery in the U.S., stating: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Former slave and plantation owners, as well as politicians from Southern states soon realized that the protections from legalized slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment did not apply to Blacks who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison. As a result, they collaborated together and developed legal systems within the state whereby an individual, typically a Black male, would be convicted of minor crimes, such as vagrancy or walking alongside railroad tracks, and then given felonies and sentenced to forced labor. Those convicted individuals would then be leased out from the state government to Southern White business owners, and forced to provide labor, in the same way that Southern White slave and plantation owners enjoyed during the days of slavery. This practice, known as ‘convict leasing’, became a burgeoning business model that caused demand to exceed supply and allowed Southern states and Southern White business owners to economically prosper.

Because Texas was the last state in the U.S. to officially end slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, they were the first to adopt this model of a convict-leasing system.

Over a four year period, up to a thousand Texas convicts were leased to private contractors to quarry granite for the Texas state capital building in Austin. Time will tell if there are more bodies to be unearthed and discovered, with stories that need to be told.