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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

Reginald Moore, Sugar Land 95 activist and “a people’s historian,” leaves behind a legacy of endurance

Photo courtesy Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle

By Katelyn Landry and Ivanka Perez     7/19/20 7:18pm

In February 2018, construction for the Fort Bend Independent School District's new technology building was underway. After laying a drainage pipe, workers noticed something buried in the dirt — a bone. 

Archaeologists rushed to the scene, where they discovered a total of 95 bodies which became collectively known as the Sugar Land 95. They later found evidence that these were the bodies of Black prisoners who had been victims of Texas's convict leasing system, a system which forced prisoners to do labor once performed by enslaved people. These convicts, who were often charged with felonies for harmless acts or put to work for being orphans, hadn't received proper burial grounds when they passed away, according to University of Houston anthropology professor Kenneth Brown.

The archaeologists' discovery wasn't entirely out of the blue. Since learning about the district’s purchase of the land several years prior, a local man named Reginald Moore had repeatedly warned them about what might be beneath the dirt. Despite Moore's warnings, the school district decided to move forward with the construction.

"If nobody had known and been talking about convict leasing and this system, those bodies could have been found and who knows what would have happened to them," Amanda Focke, the Woodson Research Center's head of special collections, said. "It wouldn't have become this huge realization in our area that that was hard evidence as to what had been going on."

Reginald Moore passed away on July 3 at the age of 60 due to heart failure. Although he is best known for the discovery of the Sugar Land 95, Moore’s mission to honor the victims of the convict leasing system began 30 years before that fateful summer. Since partnering with the Woodson Research Center and Rice’s history department in 2015, his wealth of groundbreaking research will be available to scholars for years to come. Armed with a voice and passion both larger than life, Moore began a community’s crusade to demand historical recognition from city officials, and pioneered a new chapter in Texas history. 

“Nobody cared, and Reggie did” 

When the oil bust of the 1980s plunged Houston into an economic crisis, Moore was laid off from his job as a longshoreman and became a prison guard at the Jester State Prison Farm in unincorporated Fort Bend County. Moore was among the inaugural cohort of Black officers to be hired at the prison after a federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (then known as the Texas Department of Corrections) was settled by an agreement to hire more Black and Hispanic prison personnel. 

As he witnessed firsthand the dramatic prison boom spurred by nationwide sentencing disparities associated with crack cocaine, Moore watched as prisoners trudged into the Jester fields daily with white officers patrolling on horseback — an unmistakable portrait of the legacy of slavery. 

“Working in those old [prison] buildings, he was seeing the incredible structural racism of the whole institution,” history professor Lora Wildenthal said. Wildenthal was the first person from Rice to make contact with Moore six years ago, and initiated the process of archiving Moore’s research in the Woodson Research Center. 

The disturbing sights at Jester pushed Moore to delve deeper into the dark history of Texas’ criminal justice system. After returning to his job as a longshoreman in 1988 and then retiring in the 1990s, Moore dedicated the remainder of his life to demanding honor and recognition for the victims of convict leasing, beginning with those who were forced to build the economic foundations of present day Sugar Land. 

The convict leasing system permitted Texas’ incarcerated population — overwhelmingly Black men convicted for minor offenses — to be shipped across the state to work for private companies under conditions just as brutal as those of slavery. The Imperial Sugar Company benefited greatly from this forced labor, and soon saw the growth of a modest company town known to this day as Sugar Land. 

Convict leasing enabled Sugar Land to flourish, yet the city has long turned a blind eye to its sinister roots. There are several locales in Sugar Land named after Edward Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis, Confederate veterans who worked over a third of Texas’ inmates on their sugar plantations which would later be incorporated into the Imperial Sugar Company in 1908

"It just got to Reggie that nothing was being done to commemorate all of the people who really put in the sweat labor to make the area of money," Brown said. “Nobody cared, and Reggie did."

In 2006, Moore founded the Texas Slave Descendants Society, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the historical exploitation of Black labor in the state. According to Wildenthal, TSDS gatherings ranged from a dozen people gathered in a park to hundreds of influential thinkers packed into a civic center. 

With years of diligent activism and independent research, Moore proved that one doesn’t need vast academic credentials to be a stellar historian. After learning more about Imperial Sugar, Moore mapped out where human remains were likely to be found in and around Sugar Land. Years before Fort Bend ISD uncovered the Sugar Land 95, Moore fiercely spoke against the expansion of Sugar Land’s Telfair suburb by citing his research that suggested there were likely bodies buried at the site of a new park that was proposed. The Telfair bond proposition failed, possibly as a result of local media coverage of Moore’s claims, Wildenthal said. In 2014, the remains of enslaved people predating the Civil War were discovered near Lake Jackson when the Brazos Mall was undergoing construction, further legitimizing Moore’s warnings.

Still, Moore faced many setbacks from those who doubted his research abilities and preferred to look away from the hard truths he was determined to expose. Allen Brogard, then-city manager of Sugar Land, told Texas Monthly in 2016 that himself and other city officials were growing tired of Moore’s persistent activism, which they thought was wildly misinformed. 

“There’s not a single facility, road, nor improvement that exists today in the city of Sugar Land that can be traced back to either the convict-lease program or slavery,” Brogard said. 

But David McNally, a professor of history and business at the University of Houston who worked with Moore, says he believes city officials were turned off by the moral implications of the topic at hand. 

Despite being shut out, Moore continued to show up at public meetings to make his concerns heard. 

"The reality is that he was a supremely honest person trying to tell difficult stories," McNally said. "It's not Mr. Moore who was difficult, it's the history he insisted on uncovering that many people have difficulty with." 

Moore's passion for the victims of convict leasing extended beyond the Black convicts and beyond activism for their recognition — he was given the right to be custodian to the Imperial Farm Cemetery, an all-white cemetery where prisoners and guards who worked at the Imperial Prison Farm are buried. 

"As much as he was trying to address injustices for the African American prisoners at the Imperial Prison Farm, he also was very dedicated to everyone who had worked and died there," said McNally, who was given a tour of the cemetery by Moore.

Moore’s unique blend of passionate activism and pioneering research is precisely what made his work so impactful, and what makes McNally call him a “people’s historian” who “[told] vital stories for people and communities that had been lost to history.”

Although he was extraordinarily self-taught and self-motivated, Moore knew he couldn’t do this work alone. Both Wildenthal and Caleb McDaniel, professor and history department chair at Rice, attest that he had a penchant for absorbing people of all professions and backgrounds into his network. From academics to journalists to lawyers, Moore sought out people who believed in his vision and could help bolster his activism throughout different social circles and into the public eye. 

In 2014, Wildenthal received a phone call from Moore — the first of many — that would pull her and the Rice community into his orbit. He called making a general inquiry into whether there was anyone at Rice interested in the topic of convict leasing, and though Texas history certainly wasn’t her speciality, Wildenthal knew immediately that it was an extremely important topic worth exploring further. 

“It comes back to his knowledge,” said Wildenthal. “He had direct personal experience. You can't just go out and find somebody who knows all this stuff. No academic historian would know those things.”

Through the Center for Civic Leadership’s Houston Action Research Team program, Wildenthal put together a team of three undergraduate students — Alexandra Franklin (Brown College ’16), Ryan Deal (Wiess College ’16) and Breland Coleman (Hanszen College ’15) — who digitized Moore’s research materials over the summer of 2015. At the Woodson Research Center, Amanda Focke became Moore's contact in Fondren, helping create an archive filled with records of Moore's attempts to spread the word about convict leasing. In his archive are recordings from city council meetings he attended, as well as photographs, research, and reports maintained by Moore.

"We have extensive archives, but this was the first one on the story of convict leasing. And it definitely has helped us see other gaps in our collections and inspire us to collect more in that area and related areas," Focke said. 

Personal touches

Rather than agonizing over meticulous details that academics like Wildenthal fixate on — a missing cover sheet, an unknown photographer or date — Moore preferred to spend hours discussing the historical implications and social value of the many materials he gathered over the years. According to Wildenthal, this clash of mindsets caused minor frustrations throughout technical processes like archiving, but the way Moore’s life intertwined with the prison system equipped him with an experience that can never be studied as intensely and intimately as it can be lived, and Wildenthal recognized the incredible value of having their two worlds collide.

“He didn't operate the way I operate… so we put up with each other,” Wildenthal said. "I [could've said] 'you know what, I'm too busy, goodbye.' But I'm so glad I never did say that, because indeed every time I met him I only became more convinced that this is so important."

Never one for wasting time on formalities, Moore avoided emailing and always went straight for the phone when he needed to talk. For all who spoke to him, his interest and urgency were nearly tangible through the receiver. 

Even in the last weeks of his life, Moore fervently discussed the importance of writing to the State Board of Education with Wildenthal over the phone. In one of their last conversations, Moore urged Brown, the UH anthropology professor, to work faster and look into how convict leasing impacted children, hoping that the idea of children in the system would finally catch people's attention. 

While Moore is remembered for his passion and determination to honor the memories of past convicts, McDaniel says he remembers him most for the consideration he showed the people who worked with him. 

“He had a genuine concern for the work that he was doing, but also for the people that he brought into that work,” McDaniel said. “I have a voicemail that he called and left me on Father's Day just wishing me Happy Father's Day and saying he appreciated what Rice had been doing, and those are kind of the personal touches that he brought to the work that will stick with me.”

McNally, the UH professor of history, says that while Moore may not have had a doctorate like Martin Luther King, Jr., his conviction in speech matched that of the Black civil rights icon. When speaking at campus events, Moore's passion captured the awe of the students, according to McNally.

"He was not a polished professional speaker. He didn't come in with a prepared text which he read. Mr. Moore would just start speaking from the heart," McNally said. "And what struck me was that even though he did not give a classic organized presentation, the students in the room hung on [to] every word. He started out his speech by saying, 'Repeat after me. Freedom is not free.' And from that moment on, students were just enthralled by him."

Moore didn't just speak like King — he idolized him. Not just King, but also countless other figures in the history of the Black freedom struggle, as McNally noticed on a visit to the Museum of African American History with Moore.

"Moore kept asking me to take photos of him. I took photos of him next to the great Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and to me that spoke to how much he saw himself as a link in the chain of the African American freedom struggle," McNally said. "These were his ancestors. These were the people who came before him, just like Dr. King, and he was trying to be a vehicle that transmitted that history of the struggle for freedom to a new generation. And so he wanted his picture taken with his heroes."

To this day, McNally still looks back on those pictures.

"Since I knew he was getting sick, I've returned to those photos and looked at him standing there with his shy smile, and I have to say it warms my heart to see him next to those great heroes of the freedom struggle," McNally said.

A lasting impact

McDaniel says he believes Moore treasured his collaboration with Rice, after spending years being discredited for not having a professional background in the history of convict leasing. However, McDaniel also recognized that conversely, Moore had a great impact on Rice.

"I think he appreciated what Rice brought to his project, but it's worth stressing what he brought to Rice, because he had a lot of expertise gained through his many years of activist work and research that scholars can learn a lot from," McDaniel said. "It means a lot to have his records in the Woodson Research Center because they reveal aspects of the story that you can't really get from from any other archive."

Moore’s legacy lives on through his Fondren archives, which document his efforts to spread awareness about convict leasing in Texas. They will remain in the Woodson Research Center, where they have already been accessed by several scholars looking to expand on his work. This Juneteenth, Woodson announced a new travel research grant named after Moore intended for non-Rice researchers, and the School of Humanities created two paid internships in his name intended for one undergraduate and one graduate student to continue social justice scholarship and activism. 

Moore’s impact expands far beyond collegiate level academics. Earlier this year, the Texas Board of Education approved a statewide African American studies course to be available as a high school elective. With convict leasing as a suggested lesson plan unit, Sugar Land 95 could possibly be in school textbooks statewide someday. 

"Mr. Moore is gone, but he taught us so much, and we know that there's still a lot of work to do," Focke, the Woodson Research Center’s head of special collections, said. "We're carrying on with the team that he assembled."

The pursuit of justice continues

Despite Moore's tireless advocacy, the fate of the Sugar Land 95 is far from sealed. 

Though the national media attention stopped in 2018, Moore’s fight to obtain proper memorialization did not. That same year, Moore founded the Convict Leasing and Labor Project as a platform for facilitating further scholarship, supporting prison reform activists, educating the public, and perhaps most pressingly, continuing to urge public officials to make good on their promises to honor the victims. These promises have yet to be fulfilled.

In early 2019, several county and state entities began conversations to decide where the Sugar Land 95 would be reinterred and who would maintain the cemetery. The Fort Bend County Historical Commission voted unanimously to support preserving the original gravesites, and the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court and the Fort Bend ISD school board voted unanimously to begin negotiating a deal that would allow the county to buy the land containing the gravesites and create a cemetery and memorial. Efforts to make this happen went all the way up to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk, when he signed a bill that would allow large counties like Fort Bend to operate historic cemeteries. 

Yet despite this legislative victory and months of conversations, Fort Bend ISD suddenly pulled out of the deal in August 2019, unilaterally reinterred the remains and assumed full operation of the cemetery. The Texas Historical Commission named the cemetery Bullhead Camp Cemetery, a name which the Convict Leasing and Labor Project claims has no historical relevance to the site, and the district has failed to erect any markers explaining the history of the site. 

“You could say, 'Okay, [Moore] was vindicated. He predicted that these bodies would be found at this site, and they were found at this site. And so now it's recognized, and now he's won.' He would never have seen it that way,” Wildenthal said. “The guy was never ever sitting back and saying it's enough.”

According to Wildenthal, several questions remain about the district’s decision to operate the cemetery and its apparent failure to properly maintain the site. One rumor claims that the original team of archeologists hired by Fort Bend ISD treated the remains improperly by housing them in non-climate-controlled Portable On Demand Storage containers near the site for several months in the summer heat. By virtue of the district’s continued construction of its technology building near the site, some say that the integrity of the cemetery has been permanently damaged. Fort Bend ISD denies altering the burial site. 

In the wake of Moore’s passing, the Convict Leasing and Labor Project will continue its efforts to secure proper memorialization of the Sugar Land 95. According to Wildenthal, the organization will continue to hold Fort Bend ISD accountable with the expertise of Jay Jenkins, Harris County Project Attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Vice President of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project. Jenkins did not respond for comment in time for publication.

Though the road ahead is uncertain, the organization remains a testament to Moore’s fearless pursuit of justice and recognition in the face of efforts by those who would rather history stay buried. And though he is no longer with us, Moore’s limitless dreams for commemorating convict leasing — statues, books and a national museum to name just a few — will continue to guide all those still digging for truth.

“There are these people who act like this is a little peripheral thing,” Wildenthal said. “They ask, 'Do we really have to still talk about it? Are we done yet?’ They have the 'make it go away' attitude, and Reginald always said no. We have barely begun.” 

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