The Fort Bend (Texas) district has halted construction of a career technology center after workers discovered a historic cemetery on the property.
KPRC-TV reports that a portion of the site of the James Reese Career and Technical Center in Sugar Land has become an excavation site, while construction continues in other areas
"We were back-filling into a trench when we found some remains, or what we thought could be remains," says Fort Bend Chief Communications Officer Veronica Sopher. "At this point, we've got a couple of dozen graves and that number keeps changing every day."
The district says in a news release that it is working with the Texas Historical Commission as it deals with the graves.
"We are proceeding under the guidance and expertise of the Texas Historical Commission to ensure we are respecting the history and lives of the people buried on this site," Fort Bend Superintendent Charles Dupre says. "One of our community members, who has a passion for history, brought to our attention the possibility of archeological artifacts in the general area. We were careful as we began work, with an archeologist on site from the beginning."
Officials have not yet been able to identify a time frame for the historic cemetery or who is buried there . The site was at one point home to a state prison. Before that, it was a private prison and before that, it was a plantation.
"We're going to have to send off for testing to determine a time frame," Sopher says. "We know that it's most likely more than 100 to 150 years but it could be even older than that, so at this point, it's too early in the process to determine a race, a gender or who these people were."
Construction of the facility began in 2017. The center will offer advanced junior and senior level courses.
Reginald Moore, a retired state corrections officer and historian, says he alerted district officials to the possibility of human remains on the site before they began construction.
Moore believes the remains are those of slaves and former slaves who became part of the state's convict lease system, established after slavery was outlawed.
"The system said you were free unless convicted of a crime, so that's how they were able to get slavery back," Moore says.
Plantation owners leased black prisoners who were often jailed on false charges.
Moore hopes to work with the city of Sugar Land, Fort Bend County and the school district to build a museum and memorial "to acknowledge the people who made the state of Texas, coming out of slavery. They built this off of free labor. They have sweat equity in this and the story should be told."