Design firm seeks to ‘heal the landscape’ with Sugar Land 95 memorial


When Jha D Amazi visited the Sugar Land cemetery containing the remains of African Americans who died in a forced labor camp over a century ago, she was shocked by the sobering story.

But with minimal fencing and no gravestones at the time, the appearance of the cemetery next to the Fort Bend ISD School campus was disappointing.

“If I hadn’t known that and was just driving into the parking lot,” Amazi said, “I never would have imagined that so much history was buried out there in the ground.”

Amazi and other members of the MASS Design Group, an award-winning Boston-based architectural firm, visited the cemetery at the invitation of community members advocating for the proper commemoration of the group of buried individuals known as the “Sugar Land 95”.

Today, MASS Design is launching a project to revitalize the space with an exhibition meant to honor the dead and tell their long-buried stories. Fort Bend ISD last month approved a $ 170,000 contract with the company to design an outdoor exhibit near the James Reese Technical and Quarry Center.

“We now have the opportunity to heal this landscape,” said Amazi, project manager and senior partner at the firm.

The remains were discovered in 2018 at the centre’s construction site, garnering national attention and sparking debate over how to recognize a dark chapter in American history. The discovery came after the late Reginald Moore, a community activist and historian, warned the school district that he would likely uncover the remains of prisoners during construction. Moore had maintained a nearby cemetery where other prisoners were buried.

The bodies were found near the Imperial Prison farm where prisoners worked in mosquito infested fields and suffered vicious punishments from the guards. The brutal conditions inspired the nickname “Hellhole on the Brazos”. The farm was part of the convict rental system in which the state generated income by renting convicts to sugar cane plantation owners and others, a practice that did not end until 1912.

The system has been dubbed “slavery by another name” because it targeted black men with dubious charges and harsh sentences. Some see the legacy of convict hiring in today’s prison system, with African Americans overrepresented in the prison population and inmates doing free labor under offender programs.

Community activists and other leaders in Fort Bend County were often frustrated and critical of the district’s decisions and the management of the find.

Leadership at Fort Bend ISD has changed since the remains were first discovered. The Board of Directors gained three new members in last year’s election and this fall appointed a new Superintendent, Christie Whitbeck.

“I’m glad they do the job. I’m just sad it took so long for the district to finally pull itself together and do it in the right way, ”said Samuel Collins, National Trust for Historic Preservation Advisor. “There is a great loss of trust in the community because of the way things were run originally. “

Moore died in 2020, several months before the district released a 500-page report that tentatively identified numerous bodies and determined the men were at Bullhead camp when they died. A Rice University researcher reported in October that there could be hundreds of bodies buried in the area.

Chassidy Olainu-Alade, community and civic engagement coordinator at Fort Bend ISD, said the school district has the unique opportunity to educate students on the history of state-sponsored inmate rental and commemorate the victims of brutal forced labor camps.

“Of course it’s been a journey with a lot of twists and turns to get to this point,” said Olainu-Alade. “It was always part of the plan to make sure there was a site where the community could come to learn and pay homage. “

The project is still in its early stages and no designs have yet been created, but Olainu-Alade said the district has overall plans.

“We want the cemetery to be revitalized to reflect honor and dignity,” she said.

This could include fences, grave markers and lighting, she said. The neighborhood envisions an outdoor environment with information boards where visitors can learn about the history, Olainu-Alade said. It will also include a beautiful, serene space for reflection and meditation, and a shady spot for hot summer days.

The first phase of the project is community engagement, Amazi said. The company’s proposal suggests their job could take nearly six months.

His firm is best known for its collaboration several years ago with the Equal Justice Initiative to build the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the country’s first memorial dedicated to victims of racial terror and lynchings – in Montgomery, To the. Other work includes projects in Chicago. , New York and Rwanda. The cabinet says it is dedicated to promoting justice and human dignity.

Longtime social science and history professor Olainu-Alade said she believes in the power of history. It can be difficult to tackle painful chapters in American history, she said, but it’s important to understand those neglected periods, including the post-Civil War era when slavery persisted in through the rental systems for convicts.

“It is important that we recognize that the people who worked until death contributed to the society in which we now live,” she said. “Much of the preparatory work for most of the places we call home has been thrown out by the forced labor of these people. “

ISD Fort Bend approved a measure in 2019 that allows teachers to integrate local history into social studies and history classes. This includes lessons on condemned leasing and the recent discovery of Sugar Land 95, Olainu-Alade said.

The new outdoor exhibit, she said, will provide an exploratory, site-based learning opportunity for students at Fort Bend ISD and beyond, giving them the chance to experience the power of setting foot in a historical setting. It can also help consolidate history or science lessons taught in the classroom.

Collins, who worked and traveled alongside Moore to defend Sugar Land 95, said it’s important to commemorate the past because many people don’t know enough about the history. They carry a false narrative that gives them a biased point of view, he said.

“It’s not that we want to live in the past or that we want to be victims,” ​​he said. “What we want is the truth to be told so that we can learn from it and never repeat the mistakes of the past.”

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