More than 95: Fallout from convict leasing spans generations

This story is part of Episode 8 of “Sugar Land.” Listen to the full episode above. First time here? Start with Episode 1.

Portia Harper began looking into her family history about six years ago for the same reason many people do: She wanted to know where she came from. Growing up, it wasn’t something her relatives discussed. But by piecing together dozens of records and oral histories, she managed to trace her family back six generations. And, in the process, she uncovered a mystery: a relative who seemingly disappeared.

In the 1880s and ‘90s, Harper’s great-great-great grandfather Ephraim, who went by Eph, was living with his wife and sons in Gonzales County, Texas, surrounded by their extended family. But by the turn of the century, Eph seemed to vanish from local records. The family was consequently thrown into chaos. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, fell off the radar, too. And by 1900, Eph’s sons were living with his in-laws.

The question of where Eph had gone haunted Harper. She wondered if he decided to leave his family – or if that decision was made for him.

As Harper searched for answers about Eph, she found us. Once we proved the Sugar Land 95 cemetery was misnamed, and that the real Bullhead Camp Cemetery was still out there somewhere in Sugar Land, we tried looking for it. We studied old maps and development proposals. We reread and cross-referenced every mention of the camp we could find. And we started looking for information about the people who could be buried there. People who labored and died under the convict-lease system.

We believe Eph Harper is one of them.

In 1898, Eph was convicted of cattle theft and sent to a convict camp in Sugar Land on Edward H. Cunningham’s plantation. He arrived on Valentine’s Day and was there almost exactly one year before he died of remittent fever.

Five months later, the Brazos River flooded and the Sugar Land camps were inundated. News reports from the time said that convicts from Cunnigham’s Bullhead – or Number 4 – camp had been moved to a high hill on his plantation and were in “no possible danger.” According to Eph Harper’s prison records, he died at Cunningham’s Number 4 camp, the Bullhead Camp. So, it stands to reason he’s buried in the Bullhead Camp Cemetery–The real one, that still hasn’t been found.

We shared all of this with Harper, who said she couldn’t believe the cemetery containing the Sugar Land 95 was still being erroneously called Bullhead.

“If my great-great-great grandfather really is buried at that Bullhead Camp, for them to go ahead and just literally cover up the additional site…They’re just as guilty as the people who did it initially,” Harper said. “It literally erases history, and that’s a part of history that my family comes from.”

Convict leasing in Sugar Land – and what came after – is actually a part of Harper’s family history in more ways than one. In the early 1940s, Eph Harper’s grandson lived with his wife and children in what was then the bustling company town of Sugar Land. Portia Harper’s grandfather was born there.

Eph’s grandson likely had no idea his grandfather had labored and died on the same land he called home, his grave unmarked and unacknowledged.

Harper’s family is living proof of how, time and again, history has been erased, revised and retold. This redemptive, whitewashed history created the image most people have of Sugar Land today.

In June of 1907, an experienced planter and leaser of convicts named William T. Eldridge and Galveston banker I.H. Kempner incorporated as the “Imperial Sugar Company.” By November, they had purchased Littleberry Ellis’ convict lease plantation, where the Sugar Land 95 cemetery was discovered a century later, and had control over Cunningham’s sugar plantation, too.

Just a few months later, in February 1908, the state of Texas purchased Ellis’ plantation from the Imperial Sugar Company and began operating the Imperial Prison Farm there. The company decided to hold on to Cunningham’s 12,500-acre plantation, and it was on that land that the company town of Sugar Land was born.

The company town of Sugar Land

The official history of the Imperial Sugar Company and the “sweet” town that rose up around it was written by Robert M. Armstrong and published in 1991. He wrote that his father began working there in 1908 and retired nearly 40 years later as vice president and director of the Imperial Sugar Company. Armstrong followed in his father’s footsteps. He grew up in the business and said he was “well acquainted” with Eldridge and Kempner, the company’s founders. Armstrong climbed the ranks of Imperial and, as an executive, helped govern the company town.

“Crime was almost non-existent…the quiet, conservative lifestyle did not attract the fast movers or the idle,” Armstrong wrote in his book. “Unlike the stereotype of a company town, this one did not attempt to gouge its employees at the retail level…Mr. Kempner later stated that it wouldn’t have made much sense to spend millions to build a company town, or to provide good living conditions for the people, only to take an unfair advantage on the price of a five cent can of beans.”

He makes the time sound idyllic, and that narrative stuck. Armstrong’s book is the only comprehensive text available on the history of Sugar Land and Imperial Sugar. Armstrong was able to smooth over the cracks and shape the story into something palatable for readers. For example, he repeatedly denounced the practice of convict leasing.

“Mr. Kempner had flatly refused to be associated with the practice, insisting instead on the creation of a permanent well-chosen work force as quickly as possible,” Armstrong wrote. “They attacked the convict program in a hurry. Even before they finalized the Cunningham transaction in 1908, they had moved the entire convict population from the Cunningham farms over to the Ellis plantation.”

But prison records, legislative investigations, court transcripts, and news reports show that the Imperial Sugar Company was leasing convicts on Cunningham’s former plantation through at least 1912. And as part of the sale of Ellis’ plantation, the prison was contractually obligated to sell all the sugar cane convicts harvested there to the Imperial Sugar Company at a fixed price for 10 years.

For the descendants of the Sugar Land 95 and those buried in the real, still undiscovered, Bullhead Camp Cemetery, we believe it’s important to correct this narrative in order to fully appreciate those whose suffering made that life possible.

For Portia Harper, honoring her ancestors means sharing their stories with the next generation. She hopes to one day be able to tell her son about Eph Harper and take him to the real Bullhead Camp Cemetery.

“There’s nothing that could be done to repair what was lost. Our family has been affected generationally,” Harper said. “Ultimately, the only thing that I can ask for at this time is the truth.”

Convict leasing’s legacy of loss

The truth, as Reginald Moore saw it, was bigger than the Sugar Land 95, bigger than the real Bullhead Camp Cemetery, bigger even than the thousands of other men and women buried unceremoniously across the state. Moore saw how the fallout from convict leasing has affected generation after generation and can still be felt today.

“It had a trickle-down effect,” Moore said in 2018. “Slavery and the prison system contributed to some of the afflictions and the PTSD and the situations that people go through.”

When Eph Harper was arrested, his wife and kids lost the head of their household and their primary source of income. If they were aware of his arrest and imprisonment, they’d likely come to fear the constant threat posed by law enforcement. And if they didn’t know, they might have felt abandoned. Their fears and experiences led to more broken homes in the family, shorter life spans, and encounters with the criminal justice system.

“Our history’s been consistently torn apart by law enforcement, covered up by law enforcement. And this story with Sugar Land, it just continues to perpetuate that coverup” Portia Harper said.

We heard the same from Brandon Jackson, whose three-times great grandfather, Andy Jackson, could be among the Sugar Land 95. Most of Jackson’s family has lived in East Texas for generations, but from a young age, he remembers being warned to leave to avoid getting tied up in the criminal justice system.

“That was a big stigma in our family was just, like, jail is a possibility – a likelihood – if you stay out here, this is what’s gonna happen,” Jackson told us.

Jackson said many members of his extended family have served time behind bars, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses. He’s seen how hard it is for them to readjust to normal life when they are released.

It was a similar observation that first led Reginald Moore to look into convict leasing. He worked as a correctional officer from 1985 to 1988 and saw how the prison population exploded due to the crack epidemic. Racially biased sentencing was to blame. The mandatory minimum sentence for someone holding a small amount of crack cocaine far exceeded those faced by people holding small amounts of powder cocaine.

The vast majority of those jailed for crack-related offenses were Black, and as he watched the Black prison population grow, Moore became deeply concerned by the conditions he observed. His wife Marilyn told us, “it reminded him of slavery.”

To this day, Texas prisons hold tight to their agricultural roots. In 2019, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported that inmates farmed cotton, grains and grasses on nearly 27,000 acres of land. Inmates harvested 7.8 million pounds of vegetables and raised 13,000 cows, 16,500 pigs and 230,000 hens, which laid approximately 48 million eggs.

In addition to farm work, Texas prisoners are still made to do much of the same jobs Ward, Dewey and Co. had them doing in Huntsville back in the 1870s. They make furniture, clothes, and even the leather chairs lawmakers sit in at the Texas Capitol. All those products and more are manufactured and sold under the umbrella of Texas Correctional Industries, or TCI. Today, any government-funded entity can buy products from TCI, including schools, courts, cities and state agencies like the DPS or DMV. Inmates also perform services like repairing school buses and installing auditorium seating and braille transcription.

All of these sales and services net the state an average of $50 million in revenue each year. According to a 2017 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, inmates in the U.S. receive, on average, between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour to do prison-industry jobs. Texas is one of just a handful of states that pays its inmates nothing for their work.

Current and formerly incarcerated people and their families stressed to us that paying these men and women for their work would go a long way toward humanizing them and providing them with necessary support. Living in prison isn’t free. You have to pay to make phone calls, receive healthcare, and buy basic essentials like deodorant, soap and tampons.

“I think there’s this sort of idea that people in prison are just spending their money buying Snickers and Little Debbie’s on commissary, but it’s actually a lot more basic things than that that you need to buy,” said criminal justice reporter Keri Blakinger. She covered Texas prisons for years and now works for the Los Angeles Times.

After we visited a number of state and local archives and had thoroughly sifted through countless tales of Texas prison history, we started to notice that Blakinger was reporting on similar conditions in Texas prisons today.

During the convict-lease era, there was no air conditioning, heating or indoor plumbing in the convict barracks. The restrooms, called closets at the time, were literally just that. They were located right off of the bunkrooms, within feet of the convicts’ beds. There was no way to flush out waste, so it just piled up. The smell was mentioned many times in reporting on these camps. The guards themselves testified that no human should have to sleep in those conditions. More than 100 years later, Blakinger said those conditions continue.

“There’s one guy who had been having long-standing plumbing problems that he’d been sending me videos of,” Blakinger said. “There was sewage coming in the cell through the ceiling from the floor above…It was dripping down the side of the wall. So he built a little barrier out of soap…and directed fans towards it to try to blow the sewage out into the hallway.”

More than two-thirds of Texas prisons don’t have air conditioning where inmates sleep, despite the fact that temperatures soar into the 100s most summers. On the convict-lease farms in Sugar Land, many men died of sunstroke. Now they’re dying in their cells.

“Working or living in a prison, even in the best-case scenario, is inherently traumatizing on some level,” Blakinger said. “And to every degree that you make the conditions worse and worse, you’re increasing the amount of trauma, and you’re also increasing how difficult it is to come back from that.”

Brandon Jackson said he’s been aware of the threat of imprisonment his entire life.

“My mom, to this day, will tell me, you know, ‘You’re a decision away,’” Jackson said. “And if I had a child, I would teach them the same because unfortunately that’s my reality. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it happen too often. And I don’t know that that’s ever changed, honestly. That’s what systemic racism is.”

Jackson attended Prairie View A&M at the same time as Sandra Bland. In 2015, Bland was pulled over near campus for reportedly failing to signal when she changed lanes. The conversation between the officer and Bland grew heated, and he violently pulled her out of her car and arrested her. Three days later, she was found hanged in her jail cell.

“My family taught me, ‘Take that ticket. Take the ticket and go,’ because it’s gonna be worse,” Jackson said. “I’m a bigger guy, so I’m intimidating already. I’m a walking justification to get killed.”

Though Brandon Jackson and his great-great-great grandfather Andy Jackson lived in vastly different times, they both faced the same risks that come with just living as a Black man in Texas.

“I’m a U.S. citizen, I pay taxes, I own my home,” Jackson said. “But I have to live my life like I’m a visitor here because if I move too quick, if I say something wrong, that could be the end of my life, or at least the end of my freedom.”

‘A constant rage’

Back in 2017, before the Sugar Land 95 cemetery was unearthed – before anyone knew for sure it was there – Moore called into C-SPAN to talk about race and criminal justice reform.

“The hunt is on, and we are the prey,” Moore said. “Policing was started in the slave patrol, and they still have that mentality. They feel like they have free reign to be able to shoot and kill and be the court.”

For Moore, the relationship between convict leasing and mass incarceration was always crystal clear. His friend Jay Jenkins said that’s why Moore devoted so much of his life to this work. He wanted everyone to see it and to act.

“Reggie sort of put all that in order and made it real, even before the (Sugar Land 95) were discovered,” Jenkins said. “It was like, this is the link in the chain between enslavement and mass incarceration today, and when people ask, ‘How could those possibly be linked because they happened so far apart?,’ that’s your answer right there.”

Sam Collins, who served on the city of Sugar Land’s task force with Moore, said recognizing this history and its repercussions is necessary, but it’s just step one.

“James Baldwin says to be negro in America and somewhat conscious is to be in a constant rage,” Collins told us. “To be ignorant of the situation, initially you think, well, it’s better. But then you’re still being exploited, too…We have to call these things out so that they can improve and get better, but there’s really, sometimes a power structure that just doesn’t want things to get better.”

Where are we now?

The Fort Bend Independent School District still owns the Sugar Land 95 cemetery, and still calls it Bullhead. In 2020, the school district’s social studies curriculum coordinator, Chassidy Olainu-Alade, stepped into a new role created to educate and lead engagement around the Sugar Land 95 discovery and memorialization.

Fort Bend ISD students now learn about convict leasing in their history classrooms. Other students across the state can choose to take African-American history as an elective to learn more about the Sugar Land 95 specifically.

In 2022, Olainu-Alade oversaw the opening of an exhibit inside the James Reese Career and Technical Center, the site of the Sugar Land 95 cemetery, highlighting the research conducted by Principal Research Group. The windows overlooking the graves are covered with transparent images of sugar cane stalks and birds flying overhead.

The school district paid Boston-based architecture firm MASS Design Group $170,000 to design an outdoor memorial and learning space around the cemetery, but the district’s attorney told us that funding to actually carry out the project has not been secured. He said having Fort Bend ISD fund the memorial at all would be “a stretch.”

Archeologist Reign Clark left Principal Research Group in January 2023, leaving bio-archaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley in charge. Abigail Fisher now serves as the group’s vice president and analyst and Helen Graham is the director of genealogical and historical research and family outreach. As of May 2023, they have offered no further updates on their work.

Deborah Bolnick and Sam Archer continue their genetic analysis of the Sugar Land 95 at the University of Connecticut but are looking for guidance from descendants. They’ve said they feel their primary responsibility is to these men and their descendants and they are working to protect their genetic information.

At the time of publication, there has been no formal organization of a descendant community. For Jack Mitchell, Andy Jackson, Eph Harper, Watt Bonner and the thousands of others who fell victim to the convict lease system, we hope the work we’ve done and will keep doing furthers that effort. For now, we will continue to tell their stories.

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