All Black Cemeteries Matter: Tell the Truth of the Sugar Land 95


In February 2018, bones showed up during construction for the James Reese Career and Technical Center.

These bones turned out to be remains of Black Americans who, after the abolition of slavery, were
1.    Arrested for being Black.

2.    Bought and sold as labor to cultivate sugar.

Black Americans were arrested and leased out as forced labor. The lease system re-established a slave society after the Civil War. Black Americans were forced into workcamps to make money for white plantation owners.

For the last four years, there has been a major political battle over what to do next. Everyone agrees this history must be memorialized. But how?

Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) currently owns the land where these bodies were found. In 2018, FBISD paid Goshawk Environmental Consulting to tell a comprehensive story of the burial ground, which they call Bullhead Camp Cemetery. This 535-page report was published near the end of 2020. And just a few months later, the Texas Historical Commission officially designated “Bullhead Convict Labor Camp Cemetery” as a Historic Texas Cemetery. Memorialization completed. Case closed.

There’s just one problem. A pretty big one.

The Sugar Land 95 were not buried at Bullhead Camp Cemetery. The Sugar Land 95 were buried at Ellis Camp Cemetery. Right now, this Historic Texas Cemetery is not historically accurate.

How do we know this?

After the Civil War, Confederate veteran and Texas businessman Littlebery A. Ellis purchased the land where the Sugar Land 95 were discovered. On this land, Ellis operated one of the largest sugar plantations in Texas using mostly convict labor. After his death, this land and labor contract passed down to his son and it stayed in the Ellis family until nearly the end of the leasing era.

The Sugar Land 95 worked and died at an Ellis camp.

Caption: Ellis Land, with a marker for where the bodies were found

So, why was the cemetery named Bullhead Camp? Is Bullhead a real place?

Yes, there really is a Bullhead Camp. It just wasn’t on the Ellis Plantation. The real Bullhead Camp is located on a nearby plantation owned by another Confederate veteran, Ed H. Cunningham. And just like Ellis, he also used convict labor to operate his massive sugar-growing and refining business.  

Caption: Ellis and Cunningham Land, and where they are relative to each other.

Here's what we know:

1. Between 1866-1923, dozens of convict labor camps and cemeteries existed in Fort Bend County. The locations of camps moved around during this time, so we don't have a complete historical record for where each person died and where every cemetery is located. Even without all the information, we know enough not to merge two cemeteries into one.

2. The Sugar Land 95 were discovered on Ellis’ Plantation.

3. Bullhead Camp existed on the Cunningham Plantation. Even though we don't know exactly where Bullhead is on the Cunningham Plantation, all historical accounts confirm Bullhead referred to a Cunningham camp.

The Sugar Land 95 were not buried at Bullhead Camp. The Sugar Land 95 were buried at an Ellis Camp.

Why does it matter if the Sugar Land 95 were buried at an Ellis Camp? Bullhead was a real place.

Every time we incorrectly say the Sugar Land 95 were buried at Bullhead Camp Cemetery, we are distorting history. Not only does it fail to hold Littlebery Ambrose Ellis accountable for his brutal legacy, but it erases the true experience of these 95 people who lived full lives and died horrible deaths. It also erases all the people who died at the real Bullhead Camp Cemetery. Merging two cemeteries turns what was a systemic and national atrocity into one symbolic cemetery.  

We may not be able to find the remains of everyone subjected to this forced labor. There were dozens of convict labor camps across Fort Bend County, which means Black cemeteries like this could be hidden all over the city--under homes, offices and shopping malls.

Even though we can't know everything about the past, we are responsible for what we do know. We know the Sugar Land 95 died at Ellis Camp. We must tell the truth of our ancestors. Please sign the petition to urge Bob Brinkman at the Texas Historical Commission to correct the historical record and rename the Sugar Land 95 Burial Site the Ellis Convict Labor Camp Cemetery.

From: [Your Name]

Dear Mr. Brinkman,

We cannot honor a history by giving it the wrong name. We honor people by telling their stories. These 95 people did not die at Bullhead Camp. They were killed by forced labor at Ellis Camp.

Bob Brinkman, you have the power to correct the historical record.

The current cemetery name distorts the members of the Sugar Land 95, and erases the dozens of people who died at the real Bullhead Cemetery—people whose remains we may never find.

We urge you to change the cemetery name to support a national movement that recognizes and preserves historically accurate black cemeteries.
On February 3rd, the Texas Historical Commission will announce who won the 2022 Undertold Stories Marker. This marker is supposed to honor Texas history. The Undertold Marker Approved topics "are intended to address historical gaps, promote diversity of topics, and proactively document significant underrepresented subjects or untold stories”.

Bob Brinkman, please tell this Undertold story. Calling the cemetery by its true name will allow Sugar Land to start to heal from its past. I urge you to take action immediately so that the people who were killed in this forced labor are properly honored.