May 17, 2024

In February of 2018, the remains of 95 individuals were discovered during the construction of a technical school in Sugar Land, Texas. This discovery would gain national and international attention as the first population of a convict labor camp to be studied using modern analytical methods. The unmarked and abandoned cemetery represented a forgotten group of African Americans that were forced to work in a state sanctioned, private-sector, convict labor camp harvesting sugar cane as punishment for convictions of mostly petty crimes in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Upon further study, it was found that these men had been subjected to unthinkable conditions of forced labor, malnutrition, exposure, and abuse. 

This new form of human bondage was a legally approved class of penance. Created to fill a void in the South’s free labor workforce caused by the passing of the 13th Amendment.  Ratified in 1865, it supposedly abolished slavery. However, Confederate opportunists uncovered an exploitable clause in the amendment that re-opened the door to a ready source of inexpensive labor using prisoners. 

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”.

In no time, lawmakers across the old South began passing laws to aggressively target, pursue and prosecute African American males.  This new policy enabled plantation owners to continue their pre-war practice of using convict labor under a new form of slavery.  And in 1871, the governor of Texas approved a contract for $75,000 to lease convicts to private individuals and corporations.  Although African Americans represented about 30 percent of the Texas population in 1870, they comprised 50 to 60 percent of prison population during the convict leasing period from 1871 to 1911. The median age of death among the Sugarland 95 was 24 years old.  The median sentence length was five years, with more than half of the inmates dying within a year of arrival and 78% dying within two years.  The most common causes of death were congestion of the brain, bowels and organs; gunshot following attempted escape; pneumonia and sun stroke.

Unfortunately, I just learned that my great grand uncle, James Garcia from Seguin, Texas is one of the Sugarland 95.  Unjustly convicted at the age of 19, at the height of the Jim Crow era and quickly whisked into the Texas Prison system.  His remains have been forensically identified at the Sugarland 95 cemetery. I recently visited the exhibit and spent some time reflecting at the cemetery.  And now, I am working with the Project Manager, Chassidy and a team of Bioarcheologists to accurately identify James’ headstone marker which currently resides among many others with the simple inscription “unknown”.

James was officially incarcerated into the Walker Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas on May 29, 1884.  Early that June, he was subsequently leased as human property to a prominent and wealthy sugar planter named Littleberry Ambrose [L.A.] Ellis at the Bullhead Convict Labor Camp in Sugarland.  Using the labor of convicts, Ellis was able to create one of the largest and most profitable sugar plantations in the country following the Civil War. Until now, we had only known the date of James death, October 4, 1884.  A mere five months after his arrival.  We naturally assumed that he had died from some tragic prison related event that occurred at the Huntsville penitentiary.  We had no idea, he died along with 94 others as unwilling laborers toiling on a government supported sugar cane plantation some 90 miles away in Sugarland.   

On November 29, 2023, I received a message on from a University of Texas graduate research student named Taylor.  For more than a year, Taylor had been researching and writing a dissertation on unmarked burial grounds in Texas. She found me after tracing James Garcia relatives back to my Ancestry Tree.  When she told me that his remains had been identified as one of 95 recently uncovered individuals buried in a sugar plantation cemetery.  I quickly responded, “Taylor, I think you have the wrong James Garcia.  It’s a pretty common name and besides, my great grand uncle died in Huntsville, not in Houston.” 

After a flurry of email exchanges, Taylor called and we talked for quite a while. She shared the sobering and cruel history about the Sugarland 95.  I had never heard the story before and was caught off guard, especially as I subconsciously began to factor in the minute possibility of having a family connection to this tragic period in Texas history.  But even after our conversation, I remained analytically skeptical about a potential connection and asked Taylor if there was any corroborating evidence to confirm his identity.  The next day, she sent me a follow-up email with a link to the final Sugarland 95 research report called “Back To Bondage”.  On Saturday, December 9th, I slowly read the report and learned more about the history of these unknown and unacknowledged transgressions.  And as I scrolled down to the bottom of page 7, I paused…….. and I had to read it, twice.

“James Garcia; 5’ 7”; 145; Black; 19; Sentenced to 5 years; Assault; Guadalupe, Texas; Death details “unknown”; Died after 5 months at Ellis Camp #2”. 

I sat there stoically and my eyes slowly began to fill with tears.  People sometimes do, but history, facts and data, don’t lie.  And at that moment I finally had to accepted that it was our James. He really is one of the Sugarland 95.  I immediately began to personalize and then process this unbelievable revelation. Trying unsuccessfully to wrap my head around this fundamental question “How could anyone, much less the state of Texas allow such heinous acts to be done to another human being?” I sighed deeply, unconsciously closed my laptop, leaned over on top of it and sobbed. 

Ironically, James Garcia is the only member of the Sugarland 95 whose death details were not cataloged. However, post mortem records documented scars on his forehead and deep wounds to his right shin.  So I think it is safe to surmise that he lived and died under unimaginable and inhumane conditions. I often wonder, what was going through his mind during the last days of his life?  I’ve shed quite a few tears thinking about the inevitability of events that he must have denounced, demented and then prayerfully contemplated before taking his last breath.  I choose to believe that his final thoughts were about his parents, siblings, loved ones, and the dissipating disbelief in the last three words of our Constitution’s Preamble …………. and “Justice For All”.

Hopefully, the Bioarcheologists will be able to assist us in getting closer to some form of closure.  Memorializing his final resting place, even under such tragic circumstances is important to me, my relatives and hopefully, to James Garcia.  If anyone ever needed a tangible, personal and authentic human connection to fully embrace our nation’s troubled past and acknowledge the shadows from these dark clouds of this truth.  Well now they have one………. ME.

Gone but not forgotten. Rest in peace, James

About the Author Michael K. Francis

Michael is a C-Suite Business and Human Resources Executive with more than 30 years of professional experience in the public sector with four Fortune 500 companies, and as a Management Consultant. In 2020, he founded BEAM Executive Advisors, LLC to provide consultative services to clients based on collaborative relationships, trust, and integrity.

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