As It Happens

Texas archaeologists uncover remains of black prisoners forced into labour after slavery

Researchers have discovered the remains of dozens of African-Americans forced into plantation labour after the abolition of slavery at a school construction site in Texas.

'This isn't something you see in the history books,' said lead archaeologist Reign Clark

Human remains were discovered at construction site outside Houston where the Fort Bend Independent School District is building a new school. (Submitted by Reign Clarke)

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The remains of dozens of African-Americans forced into plantation labour after the abolition of slavery have been discovered at a school construction site in Texas. 

"It's completely surreal," Reign Clark, the lead archeologist at the site outside Houston, told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch. 

"This isn't something you see in the history books." 

Construction workers first spotted human remains in February while laying the groundwork for a new technical school on the site of a former sugar plantation and prison farm. Clark's Goshawk Environmental Consulting team then discovered an entire graveyard on the site.

So far, 95 graves have been identified, and 48 individuals have been exhumed. 

'Slavery by a new name'

The remains are believed to be inmates who part of the so-called convict lease system, the archeological team announced Monday.

Slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, except as a punishment for a crime.

Several southern states seized on this loophole, rounding up black people on minor offences like vagrancy and loitering, then outsourcing the inmates for labour.

In some cases, you'll actually see scars on the bone where muscle was torn away from overwork.- Reign Clark

Sometimes the state would lease them out to plantations previously worked by slaves. Later, the state bought up old plantation lands and turned them into prison farms. 

The system amounted to "more or less slavery by a new name," Reginald Moore, a historian and prison reform advocate, told the New York Times.

He said white prisoners would more often be assigned to easier indoor work, while black inmates were sentenced to years of hard labour out in the fields.

Once they were there, Clark said they would work for years under brutal conditions in extreme heat until they eventually succumbed to malnourishment, dysentery, smallpox, malaria or exhaustion.

Students visit the site of recently discovered remains outside Houston and learn about Texas' history of forcing African-Americans inmates to work on plantations after slavery was abolished in what was known as the convict-lease program. (Fort Bend Independent School District)

"In some cases, you'll actually see scars on the bone where muscle was torn away from overwork," Clark said.

"Literally, just heavy lifting or such repetitive motion that the muscle attachments were literally torn away."

All but one set of remains have been identified as male. Some are as young as 14.

'It's going to change Texas history'

Moore had long suspected there were unmarked graves on the land, ever since he discovered the site's history as a sugar plantation, and later as state-run prison farm. 

"When I went out there and seen those bodies, I felt so elated that they would finally get their justice," Moore told the Times. 

"It was overwhelming for me. I almost fainted."

Some of the artifacts discovered at the grave site outside Houston include chains and tools. (Fort Bend Independent School District)

As for Clark, he's just glad to be bringing buried history into the harsh light of day.

His team plans to do further study on the remains, including isotope and possibly DNA analysis, to learn more about the people who lived and died on the prison farm. 

"I do feel like I'm given the opportunity to tell about a part of Texas history that is very little-known and shed light on the conditions here that these individuals faced and this population here [succumbed] to," he said.

"I do believe that it's going to change Texas history."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Reign Clark produced by Imogen Birchard.