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A cemetery in Sugar Land, Texas, forces city to confront its history

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

When construction began in 2018 on a new school in Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston, workers discovered something shocking - an unmarked cemetery containing 95 bodies.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now to a developing story out of Sugar Land, where a construction site has turned into an excavation site. Crews working on a Fort Bend ISD building discovered an historic cemetery on those grounds.

KHALID: A new podcast from The Texas Newsroom explores how the discovery of the cemetery forced the city of Sugar Land to confront its history. And it asks why those 95 bodies have still not been identified. Here's part of Episode 1.

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BRITTNEY MARTIN: Two years ago, we set out to tell the story of these 95 people. Who were they? What happened to them? But it turns out that their story is just as much about them as it is about the people who have been trying to control them for over a century.

MICHAEL BLAKEY: These remains do not belong to anyone other than their descendants. They do not belong to you. You don't own them. You have no rights to them.

NAOMI REED: Ultimately, this is a story about power.

CHARLES DUPRE: There just comes a point where, as a leader, you got to say, this is what we're doing and this is why.

REED: Who gets it and how they wield it.

SAM COLLINS: By identifying descendants, now you're bringing more people to the table that may not agree with you. So let's really not find those folks.

MARTIN: I'm Brittney Martin, an independent journalist based in Houston.

REED: And I'm Naomi Reed, an assistant professor of anthropology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

MARTIN: And this is Sugar Land, an investigative podcast series about the 95 souls laid to rest here and the systems that buried them presented by The Texas Newsroom.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And Fort Bend ISD officials say it's still too early to know just who is buried here, but this Sugar Land man says he believes he knows, and he says it's something he's been working to get acknowledged for nearly 20 years.

REED: That man was Reginald Moore.

REGINALD MOORE: The system said you were free unless convicted of a crime, and so that's how they was able to get slavery back.

REED: Moore, who everyone affectionately calls Reggie, was impossible to miss. He was 6-foot-2 with a booming voice and the cadence of a preacher. When we started working on this series, his name was the one we heard over and over again.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mr. Reginald Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Reggie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Mr. Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Reggie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Reginald.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Reginald Moore.

MARTIN: That's because he spent years pushing the city of Sugar Land to acknowledge its not-so-sweet origins. Near the turn of the century, Sugar Land was home to the largest hubs for convict leasing in Texas. The practice of leasing convicts for labor was adopted across the South in the decades following the Civil War. Reggie would show up at city council, school board and county commissioners' meetings to explain how Black male prisoners were most often lent out to sugar farmers and forced to do the grueling work of harvesting sugar cane.

REED: Convict leasing solved two major issues facing white landowners at the time. First, it provided a cheap workforce to replace the slaves they'd lost. And second, it created an environment where they could keep treating Black people as second-class citizens. Reggie believed the graves found at the school construction site belonged to those Black prisoners who worked and died on local sugar plantations, and he'd been saying the same for years, long before their bodies were actually found.

MARTIN: Every time he spoke publicly, Reggie wore this one T-shirt his wife bought him years ago on a trip to Atlanta. It's black with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. stenciled on the front in gold. Reggie followed in MLK's footsteps.

MOORE: I have a dream that one day these free men of neglected and exploited souls would be recognized for their hard works and contributions for Sugar Land and constructing this great state of Texas in the Reconstruction era.

REED: And his message, like his shirt, was always the same. This city and this state were built on the backs of exploited Black men, and for that, they deserve our apologies, our recognition and our respect.

MARTIN: For Naomi and I, this story hits close to home. I was born and raised in Houston. I went to Texas public schools and graduated from the University of Texas. I've written for newspapers and magazines across the state. Actually, I've never lived anywhere else. But before these 95 bodies were found, I'd never heard of convict leasing. At first, I thought maybe that was because I was a white girl who grew up in a mostly white part of town. But the more we got into this, I heard the same from all kinds of different people. It's a pretty glaring omission from our history books.

REED: It definitely is. I grew up sort of in the shadows of Sugar Land - next door in Missouri City. Sugar Land was whiter. It had nicer homes, better schools, the mall, better football stadiums. Missouri City felt like the lesser place to live and learn.

When I grew up, I wanted to understand how kids on the other side of town understood people like me - kids from Missouri City, Black people. So at 28 years old, I started doing ethnographic field work at a public high school there. For a year, I went to three different U.S. history classes and talked to 15-year-olds about what they were learning about race. I discovered that Sugar Land has needed to have a race conversation for a long time. I've been talking about this place and how Blackness, Black people and Black history have been ignored for years. So when Brittney approached me about doing this podcast, I was game.

MARTIN: So we started where anyone researching convict leasing in Sugar Land would start - with Reginald Moore.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We'll move to Item 1 - public comment. Those citizens desiring to speak for public comment have signed up, and I'd like to call you up.

MARTIN: In the summer of 2013, the city of Sugar Land was looking to invest in some new parks projects.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please introduce yourself, state your address for the record, and then you'll be given three minutes for public comment.

MARTIN: There were a few proposals on the table - a network of hike-and-bike trails, a festival site, and a sports park. Definitely not on the list - a memorial to convict leasing.

REED: But that didn't stop Reggie from showing up to ask for one.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We'll move to the next speaker, Mr. Reginald Moore. Mr. Reginald Moore is speaking on our agenda 4A resolution. Mr. Moore?

MOORE: Yes. My name's Reginald Moore. I'm a historian, preservationist, and I'm a former correctional officer with the Jester Unit.

MARTIN: His request might sound a little rambling, but that's just how he talked. And he opened with a pretty big ask.

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MOORE: Part of the money out of the bond election, I would like for them to build a museum in honor of the convict lease system.

MARTIN: He also wanted the city to start proactively searching for unmarked convict graves.

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MOORE: So because there wasn't any archaeological studies, the concerns are where these people are buried. And those homeowners would like to know, you know, where these bodies are. Are they living on grave sites? So I'm petitioning the city for archaeological studies on this particular property.

REED: Remember, this was five years before the graves were discovered. But Reggie just knew their bodies were out there.

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MOORE: I've been petitioning this for years - some 12, 13 years - so I'd like to see this get done while we have a bond included in there. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, Mr. Moore. Thank you for being here tonight.

REED: As Reggie said, this meeting wasn't the first time he'd made this kind of request.

JAY JENKINS: The way he comes on - because he comes on so strong - gives - or gave, I think, some people, in their minds, sort of permission to dismiss him.

REED: This is Jay Jenkins, a white attorney originally from Iowa who also happens to be one of Reggie's closest friends and fiercest defenders.

JENKINS: It was almost like people - they felt like they were dealing with a telemarketer or something that they could just dismiss because he's going to come back the next time and the next time and say the same thing. And so there's no point in really addressing it.

REED: We've learned that persistence was Reggie's calling card, and it wasn't limited to his activism.

MARILYN MOORE: We officially met in 1998. We went to the same church, and we ended up in the same Sunday school class.

MARTIN: This is Reggie's wife, Marilyn Moore. She's a whole head shorter than him and has the kindest eyes behind her cat-eye frames.

M MOORE: Even then, he was very passionate, and he was - it seemed like he was in distress. So I just asked the class to pray for him.

MARTIN: I spoke with Marilyn on a stormy afternoon last summer. Her house is on the very edge of Harris County, just a mile or two north of Sugar Land.

M MOORE: And I remember one Sunday I came in late, and I had to sit next to him. And I could see him looking at me from head to toe. And it just got on my nerves. You know, why is he looking at me? Why don't you stop looking at me (laughter)? And I don't know the timeline, how much later it was that he called me.

MARTIN: See? Persistence.

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M MOORE: He got my number from somebody in the class and called me and left a message on my answering machine and said that, well, I wasn't at Sunday school on Sunday, so I was just checking to see what happened. I was saying, yeah, right. So I finally called him back, and we talked for a long time.

MARTIN: But she still wasn't sold on the idea when he asked her out.

M MOORE: He asked me about going out on Friday. I said, well, usually my kids and I - that's pizza night for us. I said, well, I have to see if I can get someone to stay with my kids. That was my - I thought I was going to get out of it.

MARTIN: Right. You're like, oh, no...

M MOORE: (Laughter) Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Can't find anybody.

M MOORE: Right. I didn't look.

MARTIN: But Reggie kept calling, and his persistence paid off. Six months later, they were married.

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REED: Back then, Reggie was working as a longshoreman, loading and unloading ships coming into the Houston Ship Channel. It was a job he'd had since he was 18 - that is, except for a short stint in the '80s when he was laid off during an economic slump.

MARTIN: That's when he got a job as a guard at a men's prison in Fort Bend County. And it was there that he first started digging into the history of convict leasing in the area.

M MOORE: '85 through '88, I think - working in there and seeing how they were treated and those kind of things, it reminded him of slavery.

REED: When the economy rebounded, Reggie went back to his longshoreman job. But he kept thinking about convict leasing.

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REED: To better understand Reggie's quest, you need to know a little more about this place and its history.

MARTIN: Today, Sugar Land is one of many desirable suburbs on the outskirts of Houston. But in the early 1800s, it was home to the hottest real estate in Texas. When the father of Texas himself, Stephen F. Austin, was doling out land to the state's earliest non-native settlers. He chose this area for his homestead.

REED: The Brazos River runs right through the city and south, all the way to Galveston Bay. That meant the area had fertile soil, plenty of fresh water and easy access to a major port.

MARTIN: In this way, Sugar Land is really proud of its heritage. There's First Colony Mall, a neighborhood called New Territory, Settlers Way Park and neighborhoods and streets named something plantation or colonial something. But the identity of this city embraces more than anything is right in the name - Sugar Land.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sugar Land - the city that sugar built.

MARTIN: Early white settlers found the land was great for cultivating sugarcane and spent decades growing and processing raw sugar, first relying on slaves and, later, convict labor.

REED: In the first half of the 1900s, basically, everyone who lived in Sugar Land worked for Sugar Land Industries, or its sister company, Imperial Sugar.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Imperial pure cane uniform-quality sugar outsells all others in the Southwest.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Ladies, whenever you buy sugar.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Please remember this refrain.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Imperial Sugar is 100% cane - pure cane.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Imperial pure cane, uniform-quality sugar.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: I can't tell you how long that song has been stuck in my head.

REED: Schools in the area used to tour the Imperial Sugar refinery. My mom was a teacher, and one of my most vivid memories was tagging along with her and her third grade class on a field trip there. I was probably 11. We climbed, like, 90 sets of stairs to get to the top. I remember being so tired and sore because I was recovering from a broken leg at the time. I can vaguely picture big vats of sugar. And the tour was mainly about processing it, but I don't remember hearing anything about the people who made it all happen, especially before the refinery was industrialized.

MARTIN: Yeah, growing up, I honestly didn't know there were other brands of sugar. We only ever had Imperial at home. It's got that royal blue crown logo on every package with Since 1843 above it.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It was here in 1843 that the first cane sugar mill in Texas was built. And thus, more than a century ago, cane sugar became the cornerstone for one of Texas' great industries, providing one of the world's vital products - pure cane sugar.

REED: That was the story we grew up hearing. It was a family-run sugar mill that blossomed into a thriving company town. But the middle part of that story always seems to get left out.

MARTIN: It's the part that made the company town possible, that helped infuse millions of dollars into the Texas economy when it needed it most. That's the part Reggie dug into.

KHALID: Brittany Martin and Naomi Reed are the hosts of the show Sugar Land. You can hear more at sugarlandpodcast.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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