Activist’s archives on Sugar Land convict-leasing system reside at Rice


David Ruth

Katharine Shilcutt

Activist’s archives on Sugar Land convict-leasing system reside at Rice

HOUSTON — (July 23, 2018) — What is convict leasing? Why do we know so little about it? The answers to these questions can be found in the Woodson Research Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library, 6100 Main St. The Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict Leasing System Research Collection, established following the donation of archival materials by local activist Reginald Moore, illuminates the recent discovery of mass prisoner graves in Fort Bend County.

Sugar Land prisoners

“Prisoners on a construction site, Convict Leasing Photograph 13,” Woodson Research Center – Fondren Library – Rice University

In Texas, Moore is known for his insistence on finding and preserving physical proof of the system that routinely leased out prisoners to local plantations, where they were worked under horrendous conditions, sometimes to death. Convict leasing was legalized slavery in a post-Civil War nation.

Questions surrounding convict leasing are even more pressing today, following the recent discovery of 95 bodies buried on land that once belonged to the Imperial State Prison Farm in Sugar Land. The pinewood boxes and skeletal remains made national news, and the discovery was vindication for Moore.

Once the state’s convict-leasing program officially ended in 1914 after 36 years, its remnants were swept under many rugs. In the 21st century, the few physical reminders of the system — such as the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery, a plot of land that has been preserved due to Moore’s efforts — were at risk of being erased completely. Fort Bend became one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation as Sugar Land’s suburban sprawl plowed over the fallow fields of former sugar plantations.

History professor Lora Wildenthal, now associate dean of the School of Humanities, met Moore when the activist approached Rice about helping out with preservation efforts. Together with archivist Amanda Focke at the Woodson Research Center at the Fondren Library, the team spent months organizing, digitizing and describing materials donated by Moore. Wildenthal and Focke persuaded Moore to allow them to permanently preserve these materials at the Woodson Center by creating what is now known as the Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System collection.

“There was no other place that anyone had archived this material,” said Wildenthal. Some of what Moore donated could be found in public records, but much of it — such as commissioned archaeological surveys and reports — was not publicly accessible anywhere else. “That is the really special part of this collection,” said Wildenthal.

Convict leasing

“Prisoners working construction, Convict Leasing Photograph 8,” Woodson Research Center – Fondren Library – Rice University, accessed July 23, 2018,

“Journalists come in to get more contextual information about his advocacy and the story of convict leasing, as there’s not a wealth of information readily out there,” said Focke. “This pulls some of the basics together to make it a one-stop place for people who want a primer on that.”

Focke receives and catalogs it all, from Moore’s continuing correspondence with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to videos of his public comments at Sugar Land City Council meetings. Today, this constantly updating archive is one of the state’s leading sources of information on a mostly forgotten piece of our past.

Moore’s materials are housed in physical and digitized form at the Woodson Research Center. The collection is titled “Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System Research Collection 1872-2015 MS 636.”

The Woodson Research Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.