SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- "I think it's really important to know the history of the place that you call home," said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, Fort Bend ISD's Coordinator of Community and Civic Engagement.
We're walking around the back side of Fort Bend ISD's James Reese Career and Technical Center. It's a new campus, and surely, one of the few high schools anywhere with a cemetery on its property.
The Bullhead Camp Cemetery is now a national historical landmark, marking the place where human remains were found during construction of the technical center in 2018.
"That led to months of exhumation of what would now be discovered as 95 remains. Ninety four men and one woman are known to be victims of the state sanctioned convict leasing program. That system operated in Texas from 1868 through 1912," explained Olainu-Alade. "Essentially what that meant is that after slavery was abolished with the 13th amendment, it was still allowed to exist if an individual was duly convicted of a crime."
Many people who were arrested were people who had been enslaved before slavery were abolished.
"These individuals were rounded up by the state, sent to the prison camps, which were once plantations, to perform the same labor that enslaved people would have been performing prior to slavery. Only that now, there was no responsibility or moral obligation for the owners of the land to care for them as if they were replaceable. Slavery wasn't over," explained Olainu-Alade. "Instead of having to purchase human labor, you were now able to just gain it from the state for an exchange of three dollars and one cent per month per person, which leads us to the second question, was this system worse than slavery. You can argue that because during slavery, an enslaved person was an asset."
Researchers were able to preserve the remains and bury them in small marked graves.
They are still marked as "Unknown," though.
"The forensic data shows that that they were literally worked to death. Their skeletal remains show us evidence of malnutrition, being exposed to extreme weather conditions, both heat and cold," she explained. "In some cases, the brutality of that system really piqued its way in that some of these individuals had experienced wounds and gunshot wounds."
Fort Bend ISD officials are now working to make sure the gruesome discovery serves as a learning opportunity. Students across the district will be able to take African American Studies classes this fall for the first time, and educators like Olainu-Alade are working to make sure students across the country learn about the state's convict leasing program when studying history.
"I believe that the children, the youth are our future and that's where I'm starting. As a curriculum coordinator, we worked really hard to get our curriculum to address this local history," she explained. "We passed a local standard, which would allow the history of convict leasing to be inserted into our curriculum, but also other parts of our local history that we might not know about."