September 6 A History Lesson for Labor Day: Remember the Hard Labor of those who REALLY built Sugar Land
By Robin Cole, President and Co-Founder, S.O.J.E.S.
Labor Day is a public holiday held in honor of working people in the U.S. on the first Monday in September. When you think about hard labor, what type of occupations come to mind?
To me, working out in the brutal sun, 16 to 20 hours a day, under poor conditions and dying within two years of doing back-breaking work is the worst form of hard labor ever! This is what happened to many African-American men as a result of working the land to make the business owners and the state of Texas prosperous. At the same time, these souls suffered from heat exhaustion, beatings, malnutrition and eventually died young.
The laboring in the fields by these African-Americans in an area now known as Sugar Land was worse than slavery. To try to stay alive, because they were dropping like flies on state-run plantations, these victims of the horrific practice known as “convict leasing” would amputate their own feet, placed lye into razor cuts to create festering sores, inject kerosene under their skin, and fractured their arms and legs to avoid their hard way of life. Most commonly, however, they amputated three fingers from one hand or severed their Achilles tendons. When tendons were cut, they would be reconnected by doctors and the victims would be sent back to the fields.
From 1932 to 1951, there were nearly 900 recorded cases of self-mutilations in Texas owned prisons. Let’s go back to 1821 when it all began here in Texas. _______________________________
In Fort Bend County and the surrounding areas, back in the early 1800s, there was only land here. Fort Bend Countywasa great wilderness consisting of huge herds of buffalo, antelope, black cattle and wild mustangs, which roamed the prairies. In all of Texas there were only a few thousand people, most being the Karankawapeople. However, because of the desire of Moses Austin to colonize Texas, he requested and received a grant from Mexico in 1821. Moses became gravely ill a few months later and passed the land grant to his son, Stephen F. Austin, with a request to keep his dream of colonization alive.
Stephen F. Austin knew that “Without the field hands, these fertile lands, instead of being occupied by wealthy white people, will remain for many years, in the hands of mere shepherds or poor people.” Austin offered white settlers land in Texas at 12 cents an acre, which was only 10 percent of what comparable acreage sold for in the United States. The deal was that the “settlers” would pay no customs duties for seven years and would not be subject to taxation for ten years. In return, they would be expected to become Mexican citizens.
Not only African Americans not get their promised “40 acres and a mule,” they also saw how white “settlers” received 50 acres for each African American they brought with them to Texas -- African Americans who worked the land and built everything from scratch with their hands for free! These African Americans worked the land to turn the wilderness into thriving farms and cities and received none of the money nor the credit. Anything that they invented, the patent went to their white “owners” because they were considered property.
This entire area was rich with fertile soil because of the nearby creeks and bayous. It was a perfect place to plant cotton, corn and sugar. Before and after the Civil War, Fort Bend County and surrounding areas were the home of plantations and farms. However, the most brutal crop to grow was sugar cane
Because the cost of using slaves was significantly less than that of using paid laborers, the cost of producing sugar was lower than in other parts of the world. That caused the sugar trade to explod in Texas! However, the working conditions on the sugar plantations in Fort Bend County made the foreign sweatshops seem gentle in comparison, and before the slaves were set free, there was always more Africans to bring in from the Caribbean Islands to take the places of the slaves who had worn out... or died.
After the Civil War, and the emancipation of slaves, many of the sugar plantations fell in despair due to lack of cheap labor. So the state of Texas and other landowners took advantage of a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which stated that although slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited, people convicted of crimes were excluded from this prohibition. Because the South was built on the backs of African-American people, and the South’s economy was about to be all “dried up,” this loophole - the use of convicts for involuntary servitude - created a new, free labor force and could reverse the South's declining economy. Demand for convict lessees quickly exceeded the supply of lawbreakers. To maintain some type of supply, the Southern state legislatures (including Texas) quickly passed “Black Codes,” which were UNFAIR laws that explicitly applied only to Black people and subjected them to criminal prosecution for “offenses” such as loitering, unemployment, homelessness, breaking curfew, vagrancy, and not carrying proof of employment just to name a few.
And believe it or not, even orphans (some were under age 15) were subjected to the Black Codes! These Black Codes were crafted to ensnare Black people and return them to chains. And these laws were very effective. For the first time in U.S. history, many states’ penal systems held more Black prisoners than whites – all of whom could be leased by the states for profit! Now some of the “leasers” began to SUBLEASE these innocent Black people for more gain!
African-American men who were victims of this horrific system built the mule-powered mills, which were used to grind sugar cane and squeeze the sweet juice from the cane stalks to make syrup. The cane juice was boiled in large cast-iron kettles set up under covered sheds. African Americans also built the courthouse in Fort Bend County and the State Capital in Austin.
As Texas grew, so grew the sugar industry in what became known as “The Sugar Bowl of Texas." In 1843, the Williams’ sugar crop on Oakland Plantation and the crops of other nearby farms were large enough to justify a commercial raw sugar mill on the property. The mill became the birthplace of the Imperial Sugar Company. At the heart of it all was the hardest fieldwork to do, plant and grow sugar cane! This money-making vegetable, known as “magical sweet grass,” grew tall enough to swallow a farmer on horseback, thousands of acres across.
It's important to know: Harvesting sugar cane is one of the most grueling tasks in agriculture, as the stalks have to be cut, stripped, crushed, boiled and processed in a blistering race against spoilage. Yet the African Americans who did this work received neither credit in history nor company compensation for their work. Locked at night into barracks or the old slave quarters, they were given corn bread and fatback but most of time nothing more. Like the enslaved men who had cultivated these same fields before them, they labored because they were so ordered, because "they dreaded the lash more than the toil."
The state of Texas’s prison farms (several located in Sugar Land) earned $501.39 per inmate while the private plantation farms were bringing in just $178. So sad that they kept using the African-American labor without any care for their legacy. Because of the profits, the prison officials asked the state legislature for money to buy more prison farms. By 1855, there were 40 raw sugar mills in Fort Bend, Matagorda, Brazoria and Wharton Counties, where sugar replaced cotton as the dominant crop.
Although the Sugar Land Plantation was one of the largest in Texas, the practice known as “convict leasing” developed into one of the most corrupt and murderous penal regimes in American history. The town, refinery and surrounding 12,500 acres were eventually acquired by Isaac H. Kempner and William T. Eldridge in 1908. Their vision resulted in Imperial Sugar, a thriving business and company town.
By 1910, the state of Texas owned more than 20,000 acres of sugar property. The 1908 crop alone would pay half of the purchase price of the Imperial plantation and the entire purchase price of the Ramsey plantation. By 1928, the state of Texas would be running 12 prison plantations.
The precious commodity of sugar also gave birth to numerous capitalist ventures in the region, and for Fort Bend County, Texas, sugar cane production launched the start of a profitable sugar refinery, Imperial Sugar Company, which today bears the distinction of being the state’s oldest extant business enterprise. Sugar helped build and sustain the state’s prison system while also entrenching some of the earliest racial and gender ideologies and technologies that together upheld the logics of Jim Crow within and without the prison system. Sugar production was no sweet deal. It yielded tremendous profits for the state penitentiary system. At the turn of the century, the refinery in Sugar Land had a capacity of about 100,000 pounds of sugar a day. By 1915, six structures were built by African Americans, which included a general store, bakery, barber shop, general office, hotel and a saloon. These talented and skillful Black men built these structures in front of the refinery, which were the center of activities in Sugar Land.
Because of the hard work of African Americans, Imperial Sugar became of the most prosperous sugar businesses in the industry, with a capacity of more than 3.5 million pounds of sugar a day.
The Sugar Land 95 also worked this land and died as a result of their hard labor. The Society of Justice & Equality for the People of Sugar Land, Inc. (S.O.J.E.S.) applauds their efforts, especially on Labor Day. Their living was not in vain.
July 27 S.O.J.E.S. adds longtime community leader to its advisory board
Barbara Jones, Senior Manager of Community Relations and Public Affairs at Fluor Corporation, has been selected as the first member of S.O.J.E.S.'s Advisory Board.
Jones, who has worked at Fluor for 32 years, brings a long and successful history of fundraising, networking and community involvement to S.O.J.E.S.'s efforts to memorialize the Sugar Land 95 and build a national convict leasing museum and educational center.
"We are thrilled to have Barbara join S.O.J.E.S. as an advisory board member," says Robin Cole, S.O.J.E.S. president. "She brings so much experience, depth and commitment to improving the lives of people in Fort Bend County. She is a dream member."
P.J. Matthews, S.O.J.E.S. Board Member, agrees. "I have known Barbara for decades. She is without a doubt one of the most respected and connected people I know. Barbara knows the work of non profits. She is phenomenal."
Jones serves as chair or in leadership positions for many Fort Bend County organizations: Fort Bend Women's Center, Fort Bend Child Advocates, Fort Bend YMCA, Fort Bend Boys & Girls Club, Fort Bend History Association and the Lamar Education Awards Foundation. She helped create the African-American Pioneers program, which includes the world's only traveling museum with more than 150 inventions by African Americans.
Says Jones: "I believe I can contribute (to S.O.J.E.S.) by using my vast experience with working with non-profits, Fort Bend communities, raising funds and my previous work with the Sugar Land 95. I also am a historian."
June 19 A Juneteenth Proclamation for Justice for the Sugar Land 95 was excellent
The Society of Justice and Equality for the People of Sugar Land - S.O.J.E.S. – honored the Sugar Land 95 in a moving ceremony designed to seek justice for the 95 African-Americans who died as part of state-sanctioned convict leasing.
The two-hour tribute – A Juneteenth Proclamation for Justice for the Sugar Land 95 – was held June 19, the first national observance of “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Texas slaves learned they were officially freed two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Khambrel Marshall, KPRC-TV 2 meteorologist and host of Houston Newsmakers, served as the emcee to a standing-room only crowd of more than 250 attendees from across Fort Bend County and Houston.
S.O.J.E.S.’s included speeches from elected officials, community leaders, organizations, educators and supporters, as well as Marilyn Moore, wife of the late Reginald Moore, the former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) guard and long-time historian and community activist who sought to tell the truth about convict leasing in Sugar Land.
Robin Cole, president of S.O.J.E.S., announced plans to build a national convict leasing museum in Sugar Land to educate the world about the harrowing system of racial oppression that existed in Texas and throughout the South from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
“The time has come to get justice for the Sugar Land 95, their unimaginable lives of forced labor, and explain why people should never again be subjected to such inhumane and cruel practices that benefitted only a few,” says Cole, a Sugar Land resident.
Together with S.O.J.E.S.’s board, which includes Fort Bend County and/or Sugar Land residents Anna Lykoudis-Zafiris, Paul Matthews, Debra McGaughey, Bruce Lemmie, Farha Ahmed and Pastor David Sincere, S.O.J.E.S. remains committed to its mission of seeking justice for the Sugar Land 95.