Las Vegas, NM – A new window into the lives of post-Civil War African Americans in Texas has been opened thanks in part to the work of a Highlands student.
Reign Clark, a graduate student in Highlands’ Southwest Studies program, is the project lead for an excavation project of Texas prison cemetery, which was forgotten to history. During the course of their work, Clark and his team exhumed 95 bodies, African-American prisoners who worked and died on the Bullhead Convict Labor Camp. The remains came to be known as the Sugar Land 95.
“These men were subjected to such a tragic environment: naked in the winter, working in the summer heat,” Clark said.
Following the end of the Civil War and the passing of the slavery-abolishing Thirteenth Amendment, southern states experienced and economic downturn due to a shortage of labor. The amendments words, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States,” inspired a new brand of slavery, convict labor. African Americans were often rounded up on petty charges such as vagrancy and sentenced to work on prison farms.
The remains of the Sugar Land 95 exhibited graphic signs of what life was like for the convict laborers through signs of repeated injury, disease, and gunshot wounds, likely received during attempts to escape, Clark said.
“Many of these men were jailed on trumped-up charges,” Clark said. “It behooved the state to imprison people and put them to work in this manner because it was income.”
The find originated from routine monitoring of a construction site for a planned building for the Fort Bend, Texas school district. As construction crews prepared the site, they uncovered a few fragments, nothing that would suggest what had been buried and forgotten.
The team’s luck was about to change.
While digging a trench for a construction site, a contractor uncovered bone fragments. The researchers who analyzed the fragments determined the fragments weren’t human. Clark and his team decided to get a second opinion. The second group drew a different conclusion: the bones were human.
“The discovery phase took a different turn,” Clark said. “We were lucky that a random trench dug by a contractor found the grave.”
The first day of excavation following the contractor’s discovery, the team unearthed an additional grave. They found another one the next day.
“At the climax, we found 15 graves in one day,” Clark said. “The grave shaft outlines were roughly oriented east-west, some were laid out like a formal cemetery, but others were in a haphazard arrangement.”
Working in the summer 100-degree Texas heat, the team discovered a grave that emotionally took them out of the rhythm of the excavation work: the remains of a 14-year-old boy.
“When a state-sanctioned system allows a 14-year-old to be worked to death, there’s a serious injustice to that,” Clark said.
Documents kept by the prison revealed another young victim, 16-year-old William Nash who likely died of brain congestion, possibly from a traumatic head injury. He was serving four years for theft. Other common causes of death include congestion of the bowels and organs, pneumonia and sunstroke, indicating poor working and living conditions. More than half of the Bullhead convicts died within the first year of their arrival at the camp, and two-thirds died within two years. The average sentence length for the convicts was five years.
Clark said the team also found an empty grave, which led to many questions that will likely never be answered.
“We can only speculate about that,” Clark said. One possibility was the guards buried an empty coffin to hide the evidence of an escaped convict.
“A local historian told us if a guard allowed someone to escape, the guard would serve out the rest of the convict’s sentence,” Clark said.
Highlands professor of anthropology, Orit Tamir said having students like Clark is a testament to the quality of Highlands’ program.
“The fact that Reign is one of the leading authors (on the study) speaks volumes of his acumen as an anthropologist,” Tamir said. “The study is making use of the latest research methods to identify the human remain and simultaneously brought home the impacts of this type of slavery.”
Clark said he feels obligated to continue his research and bring the experience of the African-American convict laborers to light.
“I want to find other camps,” he said. “There were dozens and dozens of these camps across Texas. Where these camps were located was a well-kept secret. There were no maps or descriptions of these places, it’s a part of history that has been intentionally forgotten.
“What we hope comes from this is a greater awareness and greater transparency of what African Americans went through after the end of the Civil War,” Clark said.
Clark said a curriculum surrounding the project has been written and placed into Texas schools, and the team is pursing funding for DNA analysis of the remains to find potential descendants of the prisoners, as many of them were buried without notification to their families.
“My children will be reading this,” he said. “This has had the greatest impact of anything I’ve ever done in my work.”
Clark said he chose New Mexico Highlands University for his graduate work for the chance to be one of the first graduates of Highlands proposed cultural resource management master’s degree. The program will be New Mexico’s first of its kind and among a handful of like programs in the nation. The cultural resource management program will begin at Highlands after it receives approval from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee and the Higher Learning Commission, the university’s accrediting agency.
“I want to be one of the first students to graduate from the program,” Clark said.