‘Human lives were not of value’: African-American remains awaken history of convict-leasing system

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tags: African American history, Texas, prisons

Bill Mills experienced firsthand the cruel conditions of Sugar Land’s notorious Imperial Prison Farm.

Back in 1910, he became a part of the Texas prison system shortly after his 17th birthday when he was arrested for horse theft. And though he went on to serve multiple prison terms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia, it was his time at Imperial Prison Farm that remained etched in his memory.

“Human lives were not of value,” Mills wrote about Imperial Farm in his book “25 Years Behind Prison Bars.” “Nobody was relieved until he dropped in his tracks. The guards often said the men did not cost them any money and the mules did. That’s why there was more sympathy for the mules than for the men.”

More than a century later, near the land where Texas prisoners picked cotton under scorching sun amid threats of severe whippings, the discovery of 95 African-American remains at a Fort Bend school district construction site has put a new focus on the brutal history of the state’s convict-leasing system and the use of inmates to make money for the prisons.

“In the end, what this really was, was a replacement for the system of slavery that had existed before the Civil War,” said Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery By Another Name,” which details the convict-leasing system in the South. “There’s no place in America that proves that more powerfully than Sugar Land.”

As local activists and Fort Bend ISD officials discuss how to memorialize the remains, some say the discovery is an opportunity for the fast-growing city southwest of Houston to come to terms with a dark chapter of its past.

Read entire article at Houston Chronicle

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