Bodies of slaves found at FBISD construction site becomes battle over history

SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- It's been 10 months since the remains of 95 former African American slaves were found buried at a Fort Bend ISD construction site. Building of the new career center in Sugar Land stopped.

District attorneys were back in court this morning explaining why construction should move forward, arguing that the delays have cost taxpayers thousands, doing a disservice to the community. The attorneys argued that because there are no known descendants of the former slaves, the district should be allowed to proceed.

"While I appreciate the financial nature of this case, it doesn't just come down to dollars and cents. I think it's much bigger than that," said Michael Elliott, Mastery of Chancery for the case.

Elliott was appointed by Judge James Shoemake as Mastery of Chancery, not to argue one side, but to review the facts and filings and help the court navigate the case.

Elliott argued that while it may be difficult to find relatives of the deceased former slaves, there is a possibility descendants exist.

"Those people have a right to be in the lawsuit," Elliott said in court. "We can't just presume and go straight to asking you (Shoemake) to decide on this case."

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Elliott says after talking with members from the Texas Historical Board and the Fort Bend County Historical Commission, he's heard that as many as 21 of the 95 former slaves have been identified.

"It's very likely there are descendants," said Dr. Nicholas Cox a Fort Bend County Historical Commissioner. "It simply takes time to do the DNA testing, the genealogical record testing, and for members of the community to become more aware that these remains have been discovered."

DNA testing was briefly mentioned but Judge Shoemake said he wasn't concerned with discussing it today.

Elliott said a request has been made to outside organizations like "23andMe" and "ancestry.com" to inquire about discounts for DNA testing. He says a task force has been formed to talk about how to pay for the testing.

Currently, the remains of the former slaves are being stored in boxes on the construction site. A task force had voted 19-1 to keep the bodies where they were found, but Fort Bend ISD decided against it.

Judge Shoemake also said he'd be interested in hearing from community activists and historic boards in regards to the case.

"It worries me about your concern for not having other people engaged in this process," said Shoemake to Fort Bend ISD attorneys. "Do I have a bone to pick with Fort Bend ISD? No. You didn't ask to uncover bodies at a site where you want to build a school. But pay attention. Those bodies didn't ask to be uncovered. You uncovered them."

Several activists who sat in the courtroom today say they're pleased with the judge's questions.

Swatara Olushola, who has participated in one of the discussion committees organized by Fort Bend ISD, says today was progress, no matter how slow it may feel.

"However long it takes, you can't put a price on my history. You can't put a price on it," Olushola said.

"We've got to go through this process," Judge Shoemake said. "As painful as it is. It may be financially painful. It may be emotionally painful. I can't help that."

The next hearing has yet to be determined.

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