The Activist and Historian Worked to Dignify Lives Lost to Convict Leasing
Reginald Moore heard the ancestors calling.
The activist, historian and former prison guard spent two decades trying to prove that leased prison laborers who worked the Imperial Sugar plantations more than a century ago were buried in unmarked graves.
In 2018, an unintended excavation confirmed Moore’s hunch, which recognized lost lives and led to the founding of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project.
The remains of 94 men and one woman — all African Americans — were recovered. They became a collective and a cause known as the “Sugar Land 95.”
Moore had been struggling in recent months with congestive heart failure and died on July 3, 2020. He was 60.
“He warned Sugar Land officials, Fort Bend officials and state officials they were likely to find the remains — which they did. It was a big vindication for him,” said Kofi Taharka, the Houston-based national chairman of the National Black United Front, which has been involved with Moore’s efforts for reparations and other Black empowerment movements for the last 20 years. “He knew that this was a very, very important part of history that needed to be told to help us understand what’s happening today. … On a spiritual side, people will say those ancestors were crying out to be acknowledged, and those of us on the physical plane have a responsibility to bring their stories to life.”
Moore’s next battles to win dignity for the deceased with a fitting memorial and to educate the community about convict leasing — a legal form of re-enslavement that followed Emancipation — had just begun.
Reginald Moore was born in Houston on Sept. 14, 1959 and raised in Third Ward. He played football at Jack Yates High School and after graduating in 1978, he attended college in Louisiana on a football scholarship.
In his early career, Reginald Moore worked as a longshoreman at the Houston Ship Channel. During a mid-1980s downswing in the port economy, he became a guard for what was then the Texas Department of Corrections at Fort Bend County’s Jester State Prison Farm.
Moore also became the caretaker of the nearby Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, which holds the marked graves of several dozen state prisoners and employees.
His research on the former warden’s house ignited an interest in Fort Bend County’s Black history with a focus on the convict leasing system and prison reform.
He met the woman who would become his wife in a Sunday School class at Holman Street Baptist Church in the late 1990s. Their marriage created a blended family with three sons.
Even after he returned to work as a longshoreman, Moore remained intrigued by what he’d learned in Sugar Land, which was teeming with development as a burgeoning Houston suburb.
After taking a disability retirement in 2000 because of arthritis, Moore threw himself into activism and advocacy. In 2006, he founded the Texas Slave Descendants’ Society to bring more recognition to the state’s history of exploiting Black labor and the resulting generational effects.
He worked as a real estate agent and broker in addition to earning a certification in community economic development from the College of Biblical Studies, said his wife, Marilyn Moore.
In 2015, Rice University’s Woodson Research Center acquired nearly two decades of Reginald Moore’s community activism and historical research archives.
“A big man who loved to eat a lot,” said his wife. Moore was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2017. He switched to a plant-based diet and lost more than 100 pounds.
The first bone was found in February 2018 by a backhoe operator turning over dirt on the former Imperial Prison Farm. Development was underway on the land, which was the future site of a Fort Bend Independent School District career and technical education center.
The discovery temporarily halted construction and drew national attention.
Archaeologists determined that the 95 recovered souls ranged in age from 14 to 70. They had muscular builds but were malnourished. Their bones were misshapen from backbreaking, repetitive labor. The bodies were buried in plain pine boxes at various times between 1878 and 1911. Chains and other artifacts were also found at the site.
Moore’s movement gained momentum the same year when he founded the Convict Leasing and Labor Project known as CLLP (https://www.cllptx.org). The effort is dedicated to exposing the history of the convict leasing system and its connection to modern prison slavery while restoring the dignity of everyone forced into labor and their descendants. Specifically, the project aimed to preserve the Sugar Land 95’s burial ground and ensure a proper memorial.
Moore used the legal system, the court of public opinion, media attention, shame and guilt to move people to do what he believed was right.
“He tried to work with the school district, the City of Sugar Land and Fort Bend County, but they still didn’t want to cooperate with what he was working on,” said Marilyn Moore, a retired director of equal employment opportunity and employee relations at Metro.
Recognition and acclaim
What had been a long and lonely fight, found an increasing number of collaborators over the last two years.
Between 2018 and early 2019, Moore traveled extensively for speaking engagements locally, statewide and throughout the nation at Harvard University, the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University and the University of Houston. A joint fellowship with a Harvard graduate student supported travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Moore delivered one of his last speeches at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
The Sugar Land 95’s remains were exhumed in the summer of 2018. After a court battle, the bones were reinterred in November 2019 outside the newly completed school building during what the Fort Bend school district deemed a “Blessing the Ground” ceremony. Moore considered the event a “sham” aimed at whitewashing history, and boycotted with others who believed the district disrespected the burial site by proceeding with construction.
“He went over there afterward, and on his way home, he was stopped by Fort Bend school district police. He said they had five police cars on Highway 6 that stopped him and gave him a ticket for trespassing,” Marilyn Moore said. “That really hurt him. That took a toll on him. He was really frustrated and stressed and he started letting his health go.”
Reginald Moore had been in the hospital several times since March, his wife said. Still, even when the world shifted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CLLP and Moore remained on mission.
This spring, his advocacy contributed to the Texas State Board of Education approving an African American studies elective course for high school students beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year that will include lessons about the state’s convict leasing system and the Sugar Land 95.
On Juneteenth (June 19), the CLLP released “Convict Leasing in America: Unearthing the Truth of the ‘Sugar Land 95’”— a graphic summary that links enslavement to the present, while detailing Moore’s work and the organization’s goals.
“Fort Bend ISD continues to own and operate this cemetery unilaterally,” the June 2020 report said. “There is no historical marker or other information at the site that tells the history of what happened there.” (Visit https://www.cllptx.org/report to download the report.)
Also on June 19, Moore was honored by Rice University’s School of Humanities and Fondren Library with internships and a travel grant opportunity in his name: the Reginald Moore Internship in Activism and Social Justice to support a Rice undergraduate; the Reginald Moore Internship in Public Humanities to support a Rice graduate student; and the Reginald Moore Travel Grant for Research in Activism and Social Justice.
His wife said he struggled to move from a chair to a table that day so he could appear on a Zoom teleconference for the announcement. Two weeks later, Moore made his transition.
“I’m deeply saddened by the death of my friend Reggie Moore,” State Rep. Ron Reynolds said in a statement. “He was truly a fierce advocate for the downtrodden. He never backed down from speaking truth to power. He dedicated his life to bringing justice and dignity to the convict leasing atrocities. He worked closely with me to pass legislation and shed light on the Sugar Land 95. I will continue to fight for justice and work with stakeholders to finish the work that he started.”
Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton also extended condolences and praise.
“I was deeply saddened when I was informed of Reginald Moore’s death. Reginald Moore was a great human being with a great sense of empathy. He was a man that discovered someone else’s pain and spent the rest of his life trying to make it right,” Middleton said in a statement. “He was a steadfast voice for the many victims who died in the dreadful convict leasing system. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten. He leaves a legacy of meaningful, lasting, and energizing contributions to human rights made during his fight, sometimes alone, for the fair treatment and historical recognition of the victims of convict leasing.”
These are among the acknowledgements that cement Reginald Moore’s legacy, Taharka stated.
“His work is well documented through institutions and the media, so his contributions can’t be whited out of history,” the NBUF chairman noted. “He did a lot by himself, with little support and with his own resources, to help bring this story to light. … He took on a cause greater than himself.”
In addition to his wife, Moore is survived by a son, Reginald Jeremy Moore, and two stepsons: El Xemenes Love and Tirhakah Love.
Services are planned next week at Sugar Land Mortuary, 1818 Eldridge Road, in Sugar Land, Texas. A visitation is scheduled from 4-6 p.m. Sunday, July 12. A final viewing will be from 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. on Monday, July 13 at the mortuary, with a funeral beginning at 11 a.m. that will be streamed live. Interment will immediately follow the funeral at Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery, 12800 Westheimer Road, in Houston. After the interment, Moore’s celebration of life will end with a repass at Sugar Land Mortuary.
Please visit https://slmortuary.com/reginald-moore/ for more details. Supporters are asked to donate to the Convict Leasing and Labor Project via PayPal.me/cllptx in lieu of flowers.
“All the work that he has done and the fighting that he has done and his passion for what he was doing is his legacy,” Marilyn Moore said. “He fought until the end. He fought for what he believed in. He was passionate about it and he didn’t let anyone stop him. Believe me — people tried — but he was a fighter.”