SUGAR LAND, Texas (AP) — Bill Mills experienced firsthand the cruel conditions of Sugar Land’s notorious Imperial Prison Farm.
The Houston Chronicle reports back in 1910, he became a part of the Texas prison system shortly after his 17th birthday when he was arrested for horse theft. And though he went on to serve multiple prison terms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia, it was his time at Imperial Prison Farm that remained etched in his memory.
“Human lives were not of value,” Mills wrote about Imperial Farm in his book “25 Years Behind Prison Bars.” ”Nobody was relieved until he dropped in his tracks. The guards often said the men did not cost them any money and the mules did. That’s why there was more sympathy for the mules than for the men.”
More than a century later, near the land where Texas prisoners picked cotton under scorching sun amid threats of severe whippings, the discovery of 95 African-American remains at a Fort Bend school district construction site has put a new focus on the brutal history of the state’s convict-leasing system and the use of inmates to make money for the prisons.
“In the end, what this really was, was a replacement for the system of slavery that had existed before the Civil War,” said Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery By Another Name,” which details the convict-leasing system in the South. “There’s no place in America that proves that more powerfully than Sugar Land.”
As local activists and Fort Bend Independent School District officials discuss how to memorialize the remains, some say the discovery is an opportunity for the fast-growing city southwest of Houston to come to terms with a dark chapter of its past.
Paul Gardullo, the curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has applauded the efforts of local activist Reginald Moore to call attention to the site’s history. More than 200 historians, some from Ivy league institutions, signed a statement urging local officials to maintain the historical significance of the remains. Some have even called for a museum to remember those who suffered and perished in what was once known as the “Hellhole on the Brazos,” where conditions were so bad that the well-known bluesman Lead Belly wrote a song about it after spending time there.
“The stories that the remains of those men tell should terrify all of us,” Blackmon said. “The injuries to those men and the things that the archeologists are going to be able to explain about their hunger, their musculature, the abuses and the scars and the damages to their bones . all of those things, they tell a story, whether we ever know their names or not.”
Mills, a white Texas teenager, became an inmate in 1910 as the state was ending the convict-leasing system. But he still witnessed extreme brutality as the system wound down and prison labor continued.
Growing up in Rains County and raised by Christian parents, he described himself as the black sheep of his family. A stuttering problem kept him out of school until he was 12. He worked in sawmills in East Texas and at Wild West shows, often hanging out with the wrong crowd.
At Imperial Farm in 1916, Mills writes, he was viciously punished while working alongside a squad that included 16 others from Mexico and another white man.
Joe Ford, the other white man, was attempting to teach Mills Spanish when a captain reprimanded the men for talking. The captain ordered the two men to pick 600 pounds of cotton each by the end of the day to avoid a harsher punishment.
Mills got close, reaching 594 pounds. But it wasn’t enough. He was whipped for laziness.
In July 1917, an assistant captain known “Pistol Pete” arrived at Imperial Prison Farm. He carried a 6-foot-long bullwhip and flailed inmates working the fields.
Mills described the 70 days that Pete managed Imperial Farm as “burning hell.”
“This kind of whipping was not whipping with a bat,” wrote Mills. “He would sit on his horse and whip the men like oxen, any place he could hit.”
The convict-leasing system began in Texas and other southern states shortly after the Civil War, when officials realized they had a large population of prisoners to care for and very little money, according to author Donald R. Walker in “Penology for Profit,” a book about the Texas system.
The main income for the state came from property taxes, but poor collection and Texans’ hesitance to pay meant little money was coming in, according to Walker. When the Civil War ended, the state treasury showed a balance of over $3 million but only about $145,000 was considered valuable currency.
Politicians thought leasing the prison to outside parties could be profitable. Private individuals would make regular payments to the state for the services of convicts, while the state would oversee inmate care and supervision.
The convict-leasing system in Texas was also overwhelmingly African-American. Walker describes how African-Americans rarely made up less than 50 percent of the prison population and often approached 60 percent.
“With regard to the legal system, black Texans existed essentially outside the protections of law,” wrote Walker. “For the most part, their strained financial circumstances rendered them unable to avail themselves of legal counsel to defend their interests in court. They became, in effect, passive participants in any legal matters in which they were involved; the laws acted upon them rather than the reverse.”
Blackmon said they endured the worst abuses under the convict-leasing system.
“It was all based on an assumption that where black people belonged was where they were before the Civil War: Out in the fields, living the cruelest lives of slavery,” he said.
Sugar plantation owners Ed H. Cunningham and L.A. Ellis leased prisoners from the state from 1878 to 1883, paying $186,910 to Texas in the first two years of their lease alone.
Adjusting for inflation, that would be equal to more than $4 million in today’s dollars.
“By any account, they were multimillionaires by the end of their lease,” Caleb McDaniel, a professor of history at Rice University, said of the plantation owners. “Even when their lease ended in 1883, they continued to benefit from the convict-leasing system because they kept leasing out smaller groups of convicts to work on their plantations.”
Prisoners worked elsewhere in the state as well, even helping to construct the State Capitol in Austin after it burned down in 1881.
According to a history of the Imperial Sugar Company, the Sugar Land countryside where the convicts toiled was described as a “low, mosquito-infested swamp,” where bayous held alligators and other “noisome creepers.”
“Convicts labored barelegged in wet sugar cane fields, dying like flies in the periodic epidemics of fevers,” R.M. Armstrong wrote in the book, “Sugar Land Texas and the Imperial Sugar Company.”
The state profited so much that they had little incentive to examine how the prisoners were managed.
“Oversight was costly and cost was exactly what the state was trying to minimize through the convict-leasing system,” McDaniel said. “It wasn’t until it became clear that these abuses were widespread and affecting white prisoners that public opinion started to shift.”
At Imperial Farm in Sugar Land, one German-born Huntsville prisoner, John Lenz, described how prisoners were fed little and how sometimes the food was inedible, according to testimony for an investigative committee report on life in the Texas prison system.
For breakfast, he said, inmates were given two raw, moldy biscuits. For lunch, they had “cold and hard” corn bread and black-eyed peas. They received the same meal for dinner.
“I wouldn’t feed a dog like it,” said Lenz. “I would give them more and better.”
The discovery of the 95 remains last year didn’t surprise Moore, who served as a correctional officer for four years in the mid-1980s at Jester I and III Units, in unincorporated Fort Bend County.
Watching convicts work in those Sugar Land fields reminded him of slavery. He began piecing together parts of the history, learning that Fort Bend County was part of the convict-leasing system.
When he learned of the school district’s construction plans, he warned officials they might be building on the resting place of other prisoners. He was right.
As experts began exhuming remains over the summer, they discovered that all of those buried there were black and that they ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens. Preliminary research found the remains belonged to prisoners who worked on the land once used as a sugar plantation, according to court records filed by the school district. A convict camp was established in the 1870s and “use of the burial site likely continued through 1911 as the State Of Texas operated the Imperial Prison Farm Camp Number 1 on the Property,” according to court documents.
Questions still linger about how the bodies will be memorialized and who has the legal authority to authorize DNA analysis, which could provide the first full historical picture.
A cemetery task force established by the city in August was short lived. The process broke down as task force members trying to identify a proper burial site learned that the school district and the city had formed an agreement listing the nearby, gated Old Imperial Farm Cemetery as a final resting place. The city dissolved the task force in November and assigned responsibility to the school district. In the latest twist, the Fort Bend ISD petitioned the court for permission to move the remains to the gated cemetery, but the judge delayed a decision until March. Since then, the school district has objected to the court appointing a master in chancery to mediate the case and has filed legal papers to get the remains moved.
Meanwhile, the $58 million James Reece Career and Technical Center is still scheduled to open in the fall. The school district notes that construction delays and archaeological work has cost them $5.5 million, adding that it would cost an additional $18 million if they had to re-design the project to put the center on another part of the property to allow the remains to stay where they were discovered.
Veronica Sopher, a spokeswoman for the district, said officials are “proud of the passion and commitment” shown by the entire community to learn more about the remains.
“It is a profoundly historical find that will change what and how we teach our history, and we are proud to lead these efforts,” she wrote in an emailed response to questions. “We hope with the advances in technology, that we will be able learn more about how these 95 people lived and how they died. FBISD exists to education students and to create lifelong learners. This discovery is another opportunity to do just that – educate.”
Doug Brinkley, an assistant city manager for Sugar Land, said city leaders, too, want to recognize its history, both positive and negative.
“We respect the history of the events and we stand proud with Fort Bend ISD to do everything we can to memorialize those who were victimized by the convict-leasing program,” Brinkley said. “Whatever the history brings out, Sugar Land wants to make sure that we preserve the history for the next generation coming forward.”
Samuel Collins, a member of the cemetery task force, however, said during a City Council meeting that he did not feel Sugar Land had fully come to grips with its history and ties to the convict-leasing system. He referenced the city’s logo, a crown within a star.
“None of us were here in the 1800s and I understand none of us participated in that history, but if you wear the crown, then you need to wear the clothes that go with the crown,” Collins said.
Moore doesn’t want others to forget the history either, which is why he is working to raise funds for a museum focused on the convict-leasing system. He wants the remains kept at the school district site, as do the majority of others who served on the cemetery task force. They feel it’s more respectful.
He said he’s been inspired by the African Burial Ground Project, where the remains of 15,000 enslaved and free Africans were discovered in 1991 during the construction of a federal office building in New York City. The site was turned into a national monument with an interpretive center and a research library.
“Them getting recognized is my reward,” Moore said. “I get more gratification out of knowing that their living was not in vain.”
Some believe that the legacy of the convict-leasing system can still be seen in the Texas prison system, where blacks are overrepresented, with 32 percent of prisoners but just 12 percent of the state population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The same trend plays out nationally.
Inmates still perform labor for the state prison system through offender programs such as Texas Correctional Industries, manufacturing goods that are available on a for-profit basis at 37 different facilities and that generated $84 million in profit in 2017.
Prisoners work for free making license plates, signs, soaps, shirts, pillows and mattresses, among other items. Some also work on farms — harvesting a variety of crops including cotton.
The convict-leasing system “cemented this legacy of racism in our system,” said Jay Jenkins, a project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who served on the cemetery task force. “It ensures that as long as our criminal justice system is in existence, there will be a focus on profiting off black bodies. It also baked in this unimaginable cruelty into the system that we still see today.”
Prisoners still work across the country, most recently serving as firefighters during the California wildfires for little pay.
“We have never, not for a single minute, stopped exploiting the folks in our criminal justice system,” Jenkins said.
In addition to the money-making ventures, Jenkins cited the lawsuits brought against Texas prisons for a lack of air conditioning that has left inmates dead from the heat, and to the failure to provide dentures to toothless inmates, as the Houston Chronicle recently reported.
“The conditions are better than they were out in the field in Sugar Land, but they’re still horrific conditions given modern standards,” said Jenkins.
Jeremy Desel of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the offender-work program gives prisoners the opportunity to work in a job and learn skills that are technical in nature to prepare them for employment in a specific trade.
The agency’s “mission is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society, and assist victims of crime,” he wrote in an email. “The impact is clear when you consider that recidivism drops for offenders working in TCI roles.”
Mills was able to escape the brutality at Imperial Farm. After serving 25 years in prison, he went on to become a lecturer and worked in ministry.
He educated people about his life in crime and urged them not to take the same path.
“As I have spent more than half of my life a criminal, I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to prevent some young man or boy from making the mistakes that I have made,” wrote Mills.
Mills died in 1968 at age 75 and was buried in his hometown in Rains County, according to death records.
The abuses of the convict-leasing system were exposed in 1908 and 1909 by George Waverley Briggs, a 25-year-old reporter with the San Antonio Express-News. The state government ended all contracts by 1912, but the brutality remained.
More than a century later, Blackmon says, the country should not forget its painful past.
“A place like Sugar Land is a reminder to me that Americans are not exempt from that same kind of terrible inhumanity,” Blackmon said. “If we think that we are, we are lying to ourselves.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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