The Fight to Honor the Ancestors – Protestors Confront Sugar Land Task Force on African Burial Ground

ABOVE: Sister Folade gives Black Power Salute with Imperial Sugar Company closed facilities in background

After a seemingly productive and progressive first meeting between the recently appointed Sugar Land City Manager’s Task Force on the Convict Lease Memorial, things have gotten a bit more intense since that time.

This past Wednesday, September 19th, a second meeting of the Task Force was held and emotions were high, both inside and outside of the T.E. Harman Center located in Sugar Land.

Prior to the meeting on the outside, the National Black United Front (NBUF) held what was referred to as a “Justice Rally” in front of the T.E. Harman Center. The group marched, while expressing their overall demands to ensure the remains of the 95 bodies that were unearthed at a Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) construction site earlier this year were handled with dignity and respect.

“This African Burial Ground has drawn the attention of concerned community members and local, national, international media,” said NBUF Chairperson Kofi Taharka. “The remains that were discovered represent victims of Crimes against Humanity who were entangled in the State of Texas’ “Convict Lease System” dating from the 1870’s through 1910. Fort Bend ISD, the City of Sugar Land and State officials have turned a blind eye to the concerns and demands raised by a diverse group of activist, spiritualist and scholars. We refuse to remain silent about it!”

Taharka and the members of NBUF are extremely concerned about Fort Bend ISD’s continued construction of their planned James Reese Career Technical Center on the site where the bodies were discovered and wants there to be more respect given to the sacred grounds.

As they marched and shouted, the members of NBUF also held signs that read #Sugarland95, which is a hashtag the group came up with to keep the legacy of the 95 individuals who were found at the site on the minds and hearts of everyone.

On the inside, the task force faced some internal tension as several of the members of the recently appointed task force took offense to being left out of critical decisions that had already been made regarding key aspects of the handling of the remains and the path forward.

Some of the biggest pushback came relative to the predetermined decision made by Sugar Land assistant city manager for Sugar Land, Doug Brinkley, to propose a set of guidelines for the group, including the suggestion to arbitrarily split the group into two separate committees – one focused on the burial location and interment and the other focused on the memorial service.

Sister Folami leads demonstrators in front of Task Force meeting

The problem many people had with the way the second meeting was handled was that members were not given advance notice of these suggestions, and only found out about them at the second meeting during a slide presentation given to them on a projection screen which showed the names of each member that the city of Sugar Land had already predetermined to serve on each respective committee.

“For you to already predetermine who’s going to be where, the city is making moves on the board without talking to the players,” said task force member Samuel Collins. “I think you need to slow down, take a step back and talk to the people first without giving directions.”

Brinkley stated that the committee assignments were not permanent, but could be modified based off of whatever committee each member chose to serve on. He attempted to diffuse the situation by highlighting his attempt to merely provide structure to the process of how things were getting done to ensure things were progressively moving forward. Many people still balked at the approach and the way it was presented, including community activist Reginald Moore, who was the first person to bring this issue to light, to which Brinkley responded.

“The only thing I caution is that if we don’t make any decisions, we don’t have any structure, we’ll never go anywhere,” said Brinkley.

The second meeting between the task force was a stark difference than the first meeting.

When the task force met for the first time on September 5th, they unanimously supported DNA testing of the historical remains discovered on the property. The task force also requested the preparation of a letter formalizing their support for DNA testing, which was sent to the Texas Historical Commission by Fort Bend ISD. It was decided that community and stakeholder support will be part of the commission’s decision on whether teeth will be removed from each person buried in the school district’s unmarked grave for future DNA testing.

The vote to support DNA testing occurred after presentations on DNA sampling from Dr. Catrina Whitley, a bioarcheologist, and Cultural Resources Director Reign Clark, of Goshawk Environmental Consulting.

After this second meeting, the task force will continue to work during the next six months to provide a recommendation on the interment, memorialization and ceremonial funeral details of the 95 historical remains.

The task force meetings are all open to the general public and are held on the first and third Wednesday of each month for the first two months and then one Wednesday a month thereafter.

The Forward Times will continue to follow this important historical and relevant issue in our community.