SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- February marks five years since construction crews found 95 graves in an unmarked prison cemetery while building a school for Fort Bend ISD. They're now known as the Sugar Land 95 and it's taken DNA researchers longer than expected to identify these African American individuals, due to multiple setbacks. But the memorialization project is making strides in other ways.
RELATED: 'Slavery by another name': How cold case technology is helping researchers identify Sugar Land 95
For Marilyn Moore, the past two and a half years have been difficult without her husband, Reginald. He was a local activist and historian who fought relentlessly for two decades to bring light to a dark part of Texas history, the convict leasing system that existed between 1867 to 1912.
Reginald developed an interest in the prison system's history after three years of working as a corrections officer at the Texas Department of Corrections. He warned state and local officials about the possibility of unmarked graves buried in Fort Bend County, but his efforts were largely ignored.
It wasn't until February 2018 when his predictions were validated and the remains of the Sugar Land 95 were discovered. But Reginald died just two years later at the age of 60 from heart failure. Since then, Marilyn's stepped up as a volunteer for the exhibit.
"I just felt that if I didn't step up, then he would be forgotten. Sometimes this is a little bit emotional and then other times it's looking at his tenacity, his passion, his steadfastness, his perseverance, and his advocacy for those who could not speak for themselves. it makes me appreciate his contributions even more," said Moore.
RELATED: New exhibit honoring Sugar Land 95 opens at Fort Bend ISD
Archeologists determined that the people buried were likely convicts who were leased by the state to provide cheap labor to local plantation owners following the national abolition of slavery. The South needed a way to continue producing raw materials and the 13th amendment left the door open just far enough to institute a new form of slavery through convict leasing.
Experts said the Sugar Land 95 are Black men who were imprisoned for petty crimes carrying heavy penalties. Several of them died after only spending days at the camp, while others endured inhumane conditions for months and years. Although the median sentence length was five years, more than half died within a year of arriving at the camp.
The average age of those identified through forensic analysis was 24 years old and the youngest was 14. Many of them were married. The most common causes of death were congestion of different body parts, gunshot wounds while trying to escape, pneumonia, and sunstroke.
"We know that slavery was ugly. Convict leasing was ugly. Many times people don't want to talk about it because it's ugly. But it's history and we have to be honest about it and say, 'Yes, it happened. What are we going to do about it? How do we move forward?' The world is watching us to see how we handle this unique situation," said Moore.
In November 2019, the Sugar Land 95 were laid back to rest where their remains were originally found and the site was established as the Bullhead Labor Camp Cemetery. Each gravesite and burial vessel has been carefully marked so each person could be reunited with family, if descendants are identified in the future.
Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley, Abigail Fisher, and Dr. Helen Graham of Principal Research Group made it their life's mission to get the Sugar Land 95 identified and connected with their descendants. But as volunteers, they've faced multiple delays with the complexity of the DNA testing process, funding, and the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the testing laboratory for two and a half years.
Banks Whitley explained that in order for them to identify an individual, they need to have a descendant to compare to the DNA. So far, they have five potential descendants and hope to identify the first batch of remains within the next year.
"Every time we work on this, it hits us again what these people went through and our overwhelming responsibility to them. It weighs on us and this is a very big job, but we still do it every day. It's also an obligation to see this through to the end. We have an emotional connection to these individuals," said Fisher.
"It's also such a heavy responsibility because convict labor is something that is not really talked about. It's not really in our history books and it really is an atrocious part of our history that we need to know," said Banks Whitley. "We need the community's help to get this done. We've used our own funds and put our money where our mouth is. Our pockets are not that deep and it takes a lot."
Meanwhile, other parts of the project such as education, memorialization, and community outreach are flourishing quickly. FBISD has adopted a local history standard that incorporated the Sugar Land 95 discovery into the district's social studies curriculum. In April 2020, the Texas State Board of Education approved an African American studies course, which includes the history of convict leasing and the Sugar Land 95.
"I hope to see one day a memorial or museum that recognizes the contributions of those who were in forced labor. I would love to see a learning center type of deal and an effort to get this into history books nationwide," said Moore.
RELATED: Sugar Land 95: How the discovery led to new curriculum at Fort Bend ISD
During Black History Month, Chassidy Olainu-Alade, who is the coordinator of community engagement of Fort Bend ISD can be seen giving back-to-back student field trips of the exhibit and public tours of the Bullhead Labor Camp Cemetery. The efforts continue year-round, all in an effort to make sure these individuals will never be forgotten again.
"You don't know where you're going unless you know where you came from. I have a deep interest in knowing about my past and my ancestors to truly understand how resilient they were. It empowers me to go on and be even greater. The purpose is not to get stuck in the difficult topics, but to understand how all the difficulties lead to process and becoming better," said Olainu-Alade.
The community will hold an event on February 19th to commemorate five years since the Sugar Land 95 were discovered. The performances will be from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. at the James Reese Career & Technical Center and the vigil will take place from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m. at the Bullhead Labor Camp Cemetery.
To donate to DNA testing efforts for the Sugar Land 95, visit the Sugar Land 95's website.
To book a tour or learn more about the Sugar Land 95, visit Fort Bend ISD's website.