Opinion | Documenting ‘Slavery by Another Name’ in Texas

An African-American burial floor just lately unearthed in Texas reveals particulars about an unsightly chapter in the historical past of the American South.

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A drawing of one of many burials found on the web site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center in Sugar Land, Tex.CreditMarie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle, by way of Associated Press

Americans who grew up with the fiction that slavery was confined to the South — and that the North had all the time been “free” — realized otherwise in 1991, when building employees stumbled upon the skeletal stays of greater than 400 Africans at a web site in New York City that has since been designated the African Burial Ground National Monument. The catalog of injuries etched into the bones of the women and men who labored to construct, feed and defend Colonial-era New York contains muscle groups so violently strained they have been ripped away from the skeleton, providing a grisly portrait of what it was wish to be labored to dying in bondage.

An identical portrait is rising in Sugar Land, Tex., a suburb southwest of Houston, the place researchers are inspecting the remains of about 95 African-Americans whose unmarked graves have been found this yr. The lifeless are virtually definitely victims of the second system of slavery that arose when Southerners got down to circumvent the 13th Amendment of 1865, which outlawed involuntary servitude besides as punishment for felony conviction.

Those states imposed what the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon rightly describes as “slavery by another name” — sweeping Negroes into custody for petty offenses like vagrancy, then turning them over to plantation house owners and others who generally notified the native sheriff in advance of how a lot labor they wanted. This observe, which endured in numerous varieties as much as World War II, stripped African-Americans of the power to build up wealth whereas holding them captive in harmful, disease-ridden environs that killed a lot of them outright. The Sugar Land web site gives present-day Americans a have a look at this shameful interval from an uncommon vantage level.

According to a 2004 study by the historian Amy Dase, the state started leasing inmates to personal enterprises outdoors of prisons in 1867 for building of the roadbed alongside rail strains. Subsequent contracts employed out prisoners to chop and mill wooden, mine coal and quarry stone. By the 1880s, greater than a 3rd of Texas’ inmates have been engaged in 12 of the state’s 18 sugar plantations by means of a contract with two distinguished businessmen who wanted “an affordable labor provide that might be coerced a lot as slaves had been” to make sugar manufacturing worthwhile.

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Chains found on the historic web site the place African-Americans compelled into servitude after the Civil War have been buried.CreditMarie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle, by way of Associated Press

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More on the Texas burial floor

The Texas inmate inhabitants was whiter than in different Southern states, however owing to racist stereotypes, whites got extra favorable work assignments. African-Americans have been sometimes assigned to swampy plantations the place the harmful, backbreaking occupation of chopping sugar cane typically awaited them.

The plantations in Fort Bend County, the place the misplaced graves have been just lately uncovered, have been described as “low, mosquito infested swamp and the sluggish bayous [that] were habitats for alligators and noisome creepers. Convicts labored barelegged in wet sugar cane fields, dying like flies in the periodic epidemics of fevers.” Housing was poor, brutality rampant, and the annual mortality charge is claimed to have been three p.c. To demark their struggling, inmates named the area the “Hell Hole on the Brazos’’ — a label that persists to at the present time.

The new graves have been uncovered this yr through the building of a college in Fort Bend County, the place researchers imagine the graveyard was used between 1878 and 1911. The timing means that a few of these buried on the web site are more likely to have begun their lives in formalized slavery solely to be ensnared in the successor system of bondage that Southern states expressly designed to switch it.

Scientists have discovered debilitating accidents harking back to New York’s African Burial Ground — together with bone infections, healed breaks, bones distorted by heavy labor and muscle groups torn away from the skeleton. With shut examine, scientists ought to be capable to discern what meals the inmates consumed and the ailments they suffered, offering a fuller portrait of the hell the state visited upon its black jail inmates in specific.

This graveyard’s relationship to the second enslavement of black Americans in the 19th century makes it a crucially necessary archaeological discover, and the scientific staff ought to take on a regular basis it wants to investigate it. Beyond that, state and native officers are obligated to memorialize this web site in a way befitting its significance in the historical past of each Texas and the United States.

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