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Rest in Peace: Local Leaders Step Up to Protect the Sacred Remains of the ‘Sugar Land 95’

NNPA NEWSWIRE — This past week, the Fort Bend ISD (FBISD) Board of Trustees unanimously voted to no longer move forward with any legal actions related to the historic cemetery where the 95 individuals, commonly known as the ‘Sugar Land 95’, were discovered by a contractor back in February of 2018 while working on the initial phase of FBISD’s planned site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center.

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By Jeffrey L. Boney, NNPA Newswire Contributor

The arc of the moral universe is bending towards justice for the 95 victims of the unjust and inhumane convict-leasing system in Texas, who were previously lost to history.

This past week, the Fort Bend ISD (FBISD) Board of Trustees unanimously voted to no longer move forward with any legal actions related to the historic cemetery where the 95 individuals, commonly known as the ‘Sugar Land 95’, were discovered by a contractor back in February of 2018 while working on the initial phase of FBISD’s planned site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. The game changing decision by FBISD came a week after the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court led the way by unanimously voting to work with FBISD to come up with an interlocal agreement to best handle the sacred site where the remains were found.

In a statement released by FBISD Board President Jason Burdine regarding the decision, he states:

“Fort Bend ISD agrees that the ‘Sugar Land 95’ need to be memorialized at the site of discovery. We have embraced the offer made by Fort Bend County to work with us to create an appropriate memorial for the victims of the convict leasing system. We are hopeful and optimistic that by working together with the County these bodies can be reinterred so they can rest in peace. Should we encounter any obstacles to this solution, we will look to the State of Texas, other elected officials, as well as lawmakers, to assist us in finding a solution.

“We appreciate and welcome the County’s recent commitment to work with the District toward a solution that preserves the story and memory of those buried on this historic site. In order to show our good faith and commitment to working toward a comprehensive solution, the District will halt all further court action while we explore all available options with the County.

“The District’s plan to build the portion of the building that is within the cemetery area has been cancelled. We are confident that our partnership with the County will result in a solution that allows the historic cemetery to operate by a legally authorized entity. We look forward to working with local elected officials and community leaders to implement this solution as quickly as possible and keep our promise to honor and educate the public and future generations about the 95 souls who were previously lost to history.”

FBISD had been under serious pressure to halt the construction on the site and work with community leaders to best address the situation. Prior to a coalition of community activists, elected officials and major stakeholders coming together to advocate on behalf of the ‘Sugar Land 95’, all indications were that FBISD was committed to moving forward with their construction plans and were completely disregarding the requests of many in the community.

Newly elected Fort Bend County Judge KP George (D-TX) stated that from his very first day in office, he encouraged Fort Bend County to pursue justice for the ‘Sugar Land 95’ victims.

“I am enthusiastic about the school board’s decision to focus on negotiation as opposed to legal action or construction on the grave sites,” said George. “The community should know that there is still considerable work to be done, and I look forward to making sure that all parties keep justice for the ‘Sugar Land 95’ as their guiding principle.”

U.S. Congressman Al Green (D-TX), who represents constituents in Fort Bend County, joined in with fellow elected officials and community activists to advocate for the ‘Sugar Land 95’ and believes the decision to halt construction was simply the right thing to do.

“I must express my gratitude for the righteous community activists tirelessly working to ensure these 95 bodies are properly memorialized,” said Congressman Green. “It is my honor to advocate for this cause. We have an opportunity to right a wrong. This is an opportunity for us that we will respect the remains of people and treat them with dignity. This is what a great country does. Let’s bring justice to this circumstance.”

The discovery of the remains of the ‘Sugar Land 95’ victims, the majority of who are believed to be former slaves who were a part of the state of Texas’ controversial and inhumane convict-leasing system, could have been unearthed well before the contractor found the remains if people chose to listen to community activist and historian Reginald Moore from the beginning.

Moore, who has served as the caretaker of the Imperial Farm Cemetery in Fort Bend County, constantly tried to inform elected officials, state employees, community leaders and FBISD that those bodies were more than likely buried on the land where they eventually were found.

Moore had always believed the bodies of those former convict-leasing system workers were there, especially because of his experience as a caretaker at historical cemeteries and his work as a correctional officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from 1985 to 1988.

Moore has extensive knowledge about the convict-leasing system, in that he worked in the Beauford H. Jester I and III Units, which is a prison farm located in unincorporated Fort Bend County. The Jester I Farm was the first one built by the state at this site and was known as the Old Harlem Farm. While working at that site, Moore became interested in the history of the prison system and became a major researcher on the subject matter.

After leaving the prison, Moore has continued to serve as a community activist and has sought to highlight and bring awareness to the abuses suffered by prison inmates who were forced to become a part of the Sugar Land convict-leasing system. Moore helped create the Convict Leasing and Labor Project in order to document the abuses of forced labor in the United States, both past and present.

One of the community activists that has been totally engaged and has worked closely with Moore on this issue has been historian Sam Collins. Collins stated that he is thrilled to hear the news about the ‘Sugar Land 95’, but has mixed emotions about the decision by FBISD.

“I am disappointed that Fort Bend ISD stretched this decision out so long,” said Collins. “We expended a great deal of energy and time having to fight. Moving forward, I hope they do not try to capitalize on the remains to recoup the cost they drove up. They should deed the property to the county for one dollar ($1). I look forward to working with the Convict Leasing and Labor Project and Fort Bend County to help educate the public regarding this history.”

Over the past few weeks, State Representative Ron Reynolds of District 27 (D-TX) has filed several bills and resolutions to bring awareness to the travesty of the convict leasing system, and is seeking to ensure there is some reciprocity given to the descendants of those who were subjected to this brutal and inhumane system.

“I am proud to have worked with various committed stakeholders to ensure that Fort Bend ISD did the right thing for the ‘Sugar Land 95’,” said Rep. Reynolds. “Congratulations to ALL the various community activists and elected officials that stepped up to speak truth to power! We are stronger together!”

Rep. Reynolds has filed the following bills and resolutions so far during the 86th Texas Legislative Session:

  • Texas House Concurrent Resolution 55, which directs the State Preservation Board to initiate steps to provide for the replacement of the Children of the Confederacy plaque with a plaque to honor victims of the state’s convict leasing system;
  • Texas House Bill 2428, which is related to the burial of convict leasing victims and the establishment of a convict leasing victim’s memorial museum to educate the public about the history and after effects of convict leasing in Texas, as well as develop a comprehensive burial treatment plan for the remains of the 95 convict leasing victims;
  • Texas House Joint Resolution 87, which proposes a constitutional amendment requiring the payment of reparations to the next of kin of certain victims of the state’s convict leasing system;
  • Texas House Bill 2430, which is related to requirements in a lawsuit for the removal of human remains from a cemetery;
  • Texas House Bill 2036, which is related to the issuance of permits for the analysis of human remains recovered on state archeological landmarks; and
  • Texas House Concurrent Resolution 51, which would create a joint interim committee to study the legacy of convict leasing in Texas.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade group that represents over 200 Black-owned media companies across the U.S., will continue to monitor the status of these bills and resolutions that have been filed in order to see how they will impact the state of Texas and any other states across the country that may have historically identical situations.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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NNPA – Black Press w/ Hendriks Video Interview

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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