95 Black forced-labor prisoners from Jim Crow era unearthed in Sugar Land after one man’s quest
The Texas convict leasing program was a system in which the state of Texas leased out prisoners to private companies to work for free or for very low wages. The program was in effect from the late 1870s to the early 1910s, and it was particularly prevalent during the Jim Crow era.
The program was started in response to the loss of slave labor after the Civil War. Plantation owners and other businesses in Texas needed a cheap source of labor, and they turned to the state’s prison system. The state was more than happy to oblige, as the convict leasing program was a major source of revenue for the government.
The vast majority of convicts leased out under the program were African Americans. They were often arrested for minor offenses, such as vagrancy or petty theft, and then sentenced to long terms of hard labor. The conditions under which they worked were often brutal, and many convicts died from overwork, disease, or violence.
Sugar Land, Texas, was a major center of the convict leasing program. The city was home to the Imperial Sugar Company, which leased large numbers of convicts from the state to work in its sugar cane fields. The conditions under which these convicts worked were some of the worst in the state, and many of them died from heat exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease.
The convict leasing program came to an end in the early 1910s, after a series of scandals and public outcry. However, the legacy of the program continues to this day. The program was a major source of racial injustice in Texas, and it helped to perpetuate the system of Jim Crow segregation.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the history of the Texas convict leasing program. In 2018, the remains of 95 African Americans who were believed to have been convict laborers were found in Sugar Land. The discovery of these remains has helped to shine a light on the dark history of the program and its connection to the city of Sugar Land.
The Texas Newsroom podcast Sugar Land explores the history of the injustice of convict leasing in Texas and the controversy that erupted when 95 unmarked graves of inmates were discovered in Sugar Land.
Sugar Land,” is an investigative podcast series presented by The Texas Newsroom–a public radio journalism collaboration that includes NPR, KERA in North Texas, Houston Public Media, KUT in Austin and Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.
Brittany Martin is an independent journalist based in Houston. She is the co-host and executive producer of Sugar Land.
Naomi Reed is an anthropology professor at Southwestern University. Her research focuses on race, education, cultural heritage and criminal justice, and she has spent the last decade conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Sugar Land. Reed was raised in Missouri City and grew up in the shadows of Sugar Land’s wealth and reputation as the “sweeter” place to live in Southwest Houston. She is the co-host and executive producer of Sugar Land.
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*This interview was recorded on Wednesday, June 21.