by jason luthor

The history of Sugar Land is complicated. Today, Houston and its surrounding areas enjoys a reputation as one of the most diverse parts of the country. However, Sugar Land’s roots, as its name suggests, can be traced to the farming of sugar in the region. This farming often depended on slave labor, though this slave labor was the kind that could only be found after the Civil War was already over.

In the years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, steps were taken to make sure that cheap labor remained available in the agricultural south. Confederate veterans Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Lewis found a loophole around the abolition of slavery; leasing Texas’s entire prison population. The Texas prison system now served as a new source of cheap labor. Convict leasing is rarely mentioned, but it was the dominant way by which slavery was replaced.
Under the convict leasing system, plantations would lease convicted individuals to perform labor on their lands in a system of slavery. The plantation was responsible for feeding these slaves as well as clothing and housing them. The system began in Louisiana as early as 1844, but the process soon spread throughout the United States. This form of slavery did occur to a limited degree in the north, but the system was particularly harmful in the south, where states gave up entire groups of slaves to private leasers.

Sugar Land’s economy was heavily contingent on this system. Sugarcane plantations depended on slave labor, which helped transform the Lower Brazos area. Entrepreneurs such as Matthew, Samuel, and Nathanial Williams began some of the first sugar plantations in the region. These plantations were founded in the 1830s but transformed sugar into a major economic powerhouse within only a decade. The plantations that populated the area were powered by slave labor until it wasn’t legal anymore, which is when the area switched to the system of “involuntary servants.”

“Involuntary servants” faced many of the same hardships that slaves had faced before them. Working conditions were harsh, mosquitoes carried epidemic causing diseases, servants were regularly beat, and medical care was lacking. This created a high mortality rate among the people working these fields. The convict leasing system, which entered Texas in the 1880s, continued to drive profits for the sugar plantations in the area up through 1910. By then, investigations of the Texas prison system forced the Texas Legislature to eliminate the system of “involuntary servitude.” However, over the course of those three decades many lives were lost.

Evidence of those lost lives can be found in the 95 bodies discovered, on accident, while the Fort Bend Independent School District began was constructing a new school. The discovery forced a halt in the school’s development as activities clashed with the school district over what should be done with the land. Today, organizations such as the National Black United Front are working to find a resolution regarding how to best honor the lives of those black prisoners and former slaves. The district needs a new school built, but the memory of the departed also has to be preserved. Debates on the issue are still ongoing.