Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Reconciling Problematic History With Growth

http://www.citylab.com; August 15, 2018

Hello Everyone:

Oh boy, oh boy what day.  First, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen entered into a guilty plea on campaign finance laws as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.  Mr. Cohen admitted that he paid hush money to Stormy Daniels in coordination with the Trump for President campaign in order to influence the election.  Meanwhile, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty, by a federal jury, on eight counts of bank and tax fraud.  Blogger thinks she hears the twittering of canaries serenading the Special Counsel. Oh yes, Blogger was reminded of the politically vindictive pulling of former CIA Director John Brennan. Kudos to Admiral William McRaven for his mic dropping rebuke of the president. Grab your popcorn this is getting really good. Shall we move on?

Every once in a while, construction crews unearth human remains.  When this happens, work has to stop and archeologists are called in to examine the skeletons.  For example, in 1991 archeologists discovered the skeletons of 15,000 free and enslaved Africans at a Manhattan work site (nypap.org; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018).  The federal government, which planned to build an office, conferred with African American communities, scholars, and activists (thc.texas.gov; June 1, 2013; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018). Together, they agreed to stop construction, rebury the bodies, and create a national monument on the site (nps.gov; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018). 

However, officials in Sugar Land, Texas took a different approach in April 2018 when they discovered 95 graves (chron.com; June 4, 2018; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) under a construction site for a new school.

A judge approved the exhumation of the bodies (sugarland.com; June 15, 2018; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) and archeologists hired by the school opened the coffins.  Andrea Roberts reports in her CityLab article "The Mass Grave Beneath a Texas Suburb," "Thehy contained the remains of black prison laborers forced to work on Texas' sugar cane plantations from 1878 to 1911.  This form of indentured servitude, called convict-leasing [tshaonline.org; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018], was common across the American South after the Civil War."

Work crews continued construction during the excavation.  The city of Sugar Land, the owner of most the land occupied by the burial ground, decided to exhume the bodies and rebury them somewhere else (texasmonthly.com; April 13, 2018; June 2017; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018). 

"Protecting Texas' black history"

Let us take a look at the contrast between these two cases.

Andrea Roberts is an urban planning professor whose scholarship (scholar.google.com; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) focuses on community development and historic preservation (researchgate.net; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) can attest to the fact that it is "not that unusual to find unmarked black cemeteries in the South.  After all, enslaved Africans comprised 35 percent of the region's population in  1860, according to census data" [census.gov; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018).

Too frequently, public discussions on how to deal with sensitive site happen after the graves have been distrurbed.  

Prof. Roberts' research (journals.sagepub.com; July 8, 2016; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) on Texas' black settlements and cemeteries (researchgate.net; June 2017) indicts that "such discoveries will only increase as it fast-growing cities expand into what was once rural."

Texas was the last state to officially end slavery (pbs.org; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018), two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Not long after, Texas became home to hundreds of freedom colonies (books.google.com; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018), towns established by "landowning African American families descended from enslaved people."

Prof. Roberts' Texas Freedom Colonues Project Atlas and Survey (spark.adobe.com; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) has uncovered "archival and ethnographic evidence evidence that African Americans established more than 557 freedom colonies throughout eastern and central Texas between 1865 and 1920.  Fort Bend County, where the Sugar Land burial ground was discovered, it itself home to five freedom colonies."

All that remains of this once prosperous community are the memories and stories, a few homesteads and the cemetery. The freedom colonies insulated African Americans from the racial terror that accompanied Emancipation and Reconstruction.  

These are crucial parts of American history.  Sadly, many of the colonies' cemeteries have been paved over, bulldozed (kxxv.com; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018), or surrounded by development.

"What the law requires"

Theoretically, Texas law should protect these historic and cultural heritage sites.

Prof. Roberts writes, "By law, once a cemetery or grave site is found, the property owner must be notified [codes.findlaw.com; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018] and the finding recorded with the county clerk."

However, "If the cemetery is more than 50 years old and abandoned, the Texas Historical Commissiin [texreg.sos.state.tx.us; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018] takes jurisdiction over the site.  It must consult with the dead's next of kin, many can require exhumation to be conducted noninvasively, using ground-penetrating radar."

Further, the state does not specify where or how the unearthed remains should be reburied, nor does it require community input in making the decision.

Fortunately, we can turn to our friends at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Federal law (nps.gov; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) takes over when a burial site maybe eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

In these cases, "construction must be halted while officials determine if the newly discovered burial grounds [Ibid] qualify based on the historic significance of the dead, the events surrounding their death, the burial materials, or their prehistoric value."

Andrea Roberts writes, "I believe work on the entire school project should have been paused the moment the bodies were discovered.  The Sugar Land mass grave has clear historic relevance [medium.com; July 27, 2018; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018], both as an endangered place [forum.savingplaces.org; July 20, 2017; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018] and a remnant of he horrific but little-known chapter of black history that followed emancipation and Reconstruction."

Although he city of Sugar Land complied with Texas state law, they did not recognized (fortbendisd.com June 4, 2018; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) the site's national significance as a former Imperial State Prison Farm graveyard.

Therefore, National Historic Preservation Act (nps.gov; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018)--"which require local officials to consult with the state and other 'interested parties,' including the descents of prison laborers throughout Texas--was not triggered."

"Black history and suburban growth"

Texas is one of the fastest growing states in America (usatoday.com; Jan. 15, 2018; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018). "With little or no regulatory constraints, suburban developments--many named after plantation owners--have proliferated in major metro areas."

Prof. Roberts has a personal connection.  She is the descendent of enslaved people, who brought to this part of Texas in the 1830s. As a child, she listened to the stories from relatives about black bodies entombed under the suburbs of Sugar Land and Missouri City.

It is entirely possible that Sugar Land officials officials knew they might unearth an old cemetery on the site of the school.

Sugar Land advocate Reginald Moore has been telling local officials (texasmonthly.com; Dec. 1, 2016; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) that prison laborers might be buried in the area.  Fortunately, there was an archeologist already on site when the graveyard was uncovered.

Exhumation took place within days, without the families' consent. News helicopters provided the public with aerial footage of the deceased in wooden boxes.  

Prof. Roberts reports, "By July, images of handcuffs, chains and other artifacts buried with the bodies were being broadcast internationally."

Further, "The Southern convict-leasing system, which some historians have called 'slavery by another name' (pbs.org; date accessed Aug. 21, 2018) was laid bare for the world--and relatives of the dead--to see."

We will pick up this discussion on Monday, if not sooner.

August 27, 2018

Today, we are returning to the subject of mass graves and suburban sprawl. First, a quick summary: In April 2018, 95 graves were uncovered on a construction site for a new school in Sugar Land, Texas.  The graves belonged to convicts, "leased out" to a local sugar plantation.  Buried with the 95 coffins, were the artifacts of their indentured servitude such as handcuffs and chains.  Texas law does require notification of next of kin but there are no provisions for reburying the unearthed remains.  Federal law is more specific on this matter, including a possible listing on the National Register for Historic Places.  The overarching issue is the reconciliation of Black history and suburban growth.  Texas is a fast growing state with little or no regulation on growth.  It is possible that Sugar Land officials knew about the graves and approved the permits.  This leads to the remaining subjects for today: Memorializing difficult history and preservation will accommodating growth. 

"Memorializing a difficult history"

One of the things that Yours Truly firmly believes is historic preservation is not just remembering the joyous and victorious events and places.  It is also about remembering the events and places of our dark moments because they serve as teachable moments for the future.  This statement definitely applies to commemorating practice of convict-leasing in Texas.

Media visibility changed the conversation regarding the grave sites.  Andrea Roberts writes,

"In the months since the discovery, Sugar Land has begun consulting with outside groups, including [Reginald] Moore and his Convict Leasing and Labor Project [communityimpact.com; Aug. 8, 2018; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018] on the process of reinterment and memorializing the bodies."

Mr. Moore would like to see the remains reburied at the Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery (fortbendisd.com; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018), operated by his organization. He and his colleagues would like a museum (cw39.com; Aug. 8, 2018; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018) dedicated to convict leasing. 

The civil rights organization, The Black United Front, hope that DNA testing will be conducted on the remains in order to determine reparations to the descendants. 

"Preserving while growing"

Federal law lays out specific and careful steps to take when Native American remains are unearthed. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (nps.gov; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018) acknowledges the rights of

...Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.  (Ibid)

There no NAGPRA equivalent, yet, for sites of the African diaspora.  This makes it harder to protect black historical sites.

All too frequently, sites of African American history are paved over. 

Prof. Roberts reports, "Of the 114 previously unmapped Texas freedom colonies my team has so far identified, for example, 21 are in high-risk locations near Texas' fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio or Austin metro areas" (texastribune.com; Mar. 22, 2018; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018). 

Texas state officials have a golden opportunity to bring together freedom colony descendants, historians, and experts over what appropriate protective measure to take before the inevitable development begins.  

Texas is not he only state facing this issue and the law does not contain the ideal remedy.

Prof. Roberts concludes,

"The United States was built with black labor. As its population inexorably expands, city planners must look beyond the law--to technology, cultural practice, community and history--to reconcile preservation with growth." 

This article originally appeared on The Conversation (the conversation.com; Aug. 14, 2018; date accessed Aug. 27, 2018(

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