Thursday, August 09, 2018

Activists Ask for More African-American Representation on Fort Bend Construction Site
By Brooke A. Lewis
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kofi Taharka, chairman of the Houston Chapter of the National Black United Front, speaks at a press conference outside the Fort Bend ISD construction site where 95 remains were discovered. Photo: Brooke A. Lewis

A group of local activists and an archaeologist on Wednesday pushed for more African-American historical and scientific oversight at a construction site in Fort Bend where 95 remains of possible convict laborers were discovered earlier this year.

At a press conference at the site, the group also questioned how DNA testing would be funded for possible descendants of the convict laborers interested in coming forward.

"To step out onto the site and see nothing but Caucasian workers, it made me feel worse," said Deric Muhammad, a local community activist. "It compounded the pain. I'm very well aware, that inside one of those graves could be my ancestor. My history has been lost throughout this process."

The group completed a tour of the site on Wednesday, which comes after last month's news that the remains exhumed so far are all African-American and likely part of the convict-leasing system, where prisoners were contracted out to perform cheap labor in Texas.

No need to travel far from EU institutions to find out about migrant labour conditions. At the Arts-Loi Metro station in Brussels, Mohammed, an undocumented Moroccan immigrant, worked for months for 50 euros a day to renovate it, and it was hard labour.

Fort Bend ISD is building the James Reese Technical Center on the construction site, located on University Boulevard and Chatham Avenue, which is expected to be completed by Fall 2019. The discovery of the remains was announced in April by the school district.

Kofi Taharka, chairman of the National Black United Front met with the superintendent last month, but said the school district has not provided a clear answer on how the DNA testing will unfold and who will underwrite the cost.

"It should never be a question of money given the free labor that they provided in this unholy alliance between the state of Texas and the Imperial Sugar Company," said Taharka. "Where is Governor Abbott?"

In a press release issued Wednesday evening, the school district noted that it had entered into a partnership with the city of Sugar Land to have a planned reburial of the remains at Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, which is located near the construction site.

The school district also noted in the release that it's working with experts such as Dr. Helen Graham, with Houston Community College, George Mason University and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

"The ability to identify descendants is one of the shared goals for all of the stakeholders and the district remains open to partnering with other organizations to identify possible funding and hopefully permission for this destructive analysis," the district said in the release.

During a court hearing earlier this summer,  Reginald Moore, a community activist who warned the school district to not build in this historically significant area, also sought more African-American representation on the site. Both Moore and Ken Brown, anthropology professor at University of Houston, told the judge during the hearing that the school district should hire  someone with a specialized knowledge of African-American history to help examine the remains.

"You need to be able to have somebody that can not only do the history, but can also bring in somebody that can talk to people today," Brown said after the hearing in June. "It's the people that really count. That's why I'm so irritated. They're treating them like they're dead bodies with nobody attached to them at all today."

Dr. Fred McGhee, an African-American archeologist and anthropologist based in Austin, also took a tour of the site with the group on Wednesday. He discussed a list of concerns the group has including lack of African-American representation on the construction site, funding for DNA testing and how the bodies will be memorialized.

McGhee said that Reign Clark, cultural resources director  from Goshawk Environmental Consulting Firm which is completing the exhumation of the bodies, noted their antiquities permit must be amended for DNA testing to be completed on the remains.

McGhee also noted how a museum should be built, so that students and the community can continue to be educated about the system.

Moore has also urged that a museum to be built to tell the story of the convict-leasing system and properly recognize the bodies at the construction site.

"I think the proper frame of reference when we speak about this is a concentration camp," said McGhee about the site. "Remember concentration camps were not just extermination camps, they were forced labor camps and that's what this was. At its peak, the Imperial Sugar Company was the largest and most important sugar company in America."

Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre spoke during a tour of the site last month that included local media.

"It tugs at the heart honestly because these are people and they lived a life," Dupre  said. "They lived a hard life and we know that about them."

At the tour in July, Patricia Mercado-Allinger, the archeology division director for the Texas Historical Commission, also urged community members who believe they may have ancestors buried at the site to come forward.

During Wednesday's tour, Muhammad noted he was told by an archaeologist that four names have been tied to the burial site after going through historical records.

He wants those names to be made public, so descendants can come forward and have their DNA tested.

"When you look at the wealth on top of the land, it is a reflection of the free labor that took place and the bodies that are buried underneath the land that did that free labor," said Muhammad. "It should not be a question of money when you look at all the wealth that's on top of the land. The only question that's really looming is do you even really give a damn or do you just really want to continue to build on this construction site?"

No comments: