Activist’s archives of convict-leasing system reside at Rice

Growing collection illuminates the recent discovery of mass prisoner graves in Fort Bend County

What is convict leasing? Why do we know so little about it?

Convict leasing

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

The answers to these questions can be found in the Woodson Research Center at Fondren Library. The Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System Research Collection, established following the donation of archival materials by local activist Reginald Moore, has been housed at the Woodson Center since 2015.

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 and other private landowners such as the Imperial Sugar Company, where they were worked under horrendous conditions, sometimes to death. After slavery ended, forced labor was still legal — if the person had been convicted of some offense. Trumped-up charges fed especially African Americans into the post-Civil War prison system where they could then be leased out as convict labor. Convict leasing was legalized slavery in a post-Civil War nation.

Questions surrounding convict leasing are pressing again today following the April 2018 discovery of 95 bodies buried on land that once belonged to the Imperial State Prison Farm in Sugar Land. Found while digging out the site for a new Fort Bend Independent School District technology center, the pinewood boxes and skeletal remains that displayed the brutality of convict-leasing conditions made national news last week with coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The discovery was vindication for Moore, a native Houstonian who previously served as a corrections officer at Fort Bend’s Jester unit. It was here that Moore first became interested in the history of the county’s prison farms — particularly that the Imperial State Prison Farm, later renamed the Central Unit before it closed in 2011, and its former warden’s home, Flanagan House. The 33 prisoners who died while working for the prison were buried on-site at the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery.

But where were the many more who perished under the punishing conditions of the convict-leasing system? Moore knew those bodies must be buried in unmarked graves — perhaps at the very plantations and farms to which the prisoners had been leased — but was unsuccessful in persuading decision-makers in Sugar Land and Fort Bend County to do the work necessary to locate them.

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.

HART team

“HART Team Summer 2015,” Woodson Research Center – Fondren Library – Rice University

History professor Lora Wildenthal, now associate dean of the School of Humanities, first met Moore when the activist approached Rice in 2015 about helping out with preservation efforts. The resulting Sugar Land Convict Leasing Project was created by Wildenthal and a team of students under the auspices of Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership’s Houston Action Research Team (HART) program. HART projects are collaboration between Rice faculty, students, and staff and Houston community partners, and develop creative responses to those community partners’ questions and challenges.

Together with archivist Amanda Focke at the Woodson Research Center, the team spent the summer organizing, digitizing and describing materials donated by Moore. With Wildenthal’s and Focke’s assistance, Moore donated his materials to the Woodson Center, allowing them to be permanently preserved as the Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System Research 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.

Engaging Houston as a strategic academic partner to collect and analyze data is one of Rice’s goals for its Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2). And even before the discovery of the Jim Crow-era bodies in Sugar Land this past April, Moore was bringing recorded and written material to Woodson on a regular basis.

“We talk weekly, sometimes daily,” said Focke, who’s received everything from Moore’s continuing correspondence with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to videos of his public comments at Sugar Land City Council meetings. This continually updating archive has become one of the state’s leading sources of information on a mostly forgotten piece of our past.

“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.”

Sugar Land prisoners

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

A physical exhibit called “Convict Leasing in Sugar Land: Featuring the Research Collection of Reginald Moore” was created and displayed at Fondren in December 2015 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. What wasn’t yet in that exhibit was a copy of a letter Moore would obtain two years later from the Texas Historical Commission.

“We were recently advised by a concerned citizen that Fort Bend ISD was initiating construction on a tract that was formerly part of the prison farm associated with the nearby Imperial Cemetery,” wrote state historic preservation officer Mark Wolfe in an October 2017 letter to Carolina Fuzetti, executive director of design and construction for Fort Bend ISD.

The Historical Commission’s records indicated that it had never received any documentation to review prior to being contacted by that concerned citizen (Moore), Wolfe wrote that “it is possible that historic deposits related to the Flanigan [sic] house and plantation … could extend into this area.” Moreover, he wrote, “there is a possibility that burials related to the prison could be present on this tract.”

That letter now resides in the Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System Research Collection as proof that Moore’s efforts were not quixotic after all, as his critics had sometimes claimed. Wildenthal and Focke hope that the recent discovery of human remains, as substantial proof of the nature of the convict leasing activities that facilitated the early growth of Fort Bend County, will propel greater public recognition of this part of Texas history and further investigation into the legacies of the convict leasing era for prison policy today.

“There could be more bodies out there, and we just don’t know where they are,” said Focke, echoing a 2016 interview she gave to Houston Public Media on the topic. “It’s not a question anymore.” And yet so many more questions around convict leasing still remain. Some of those answers may reside in the Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System Research Collection, there to offer guidance and knowledge for those, like Moore, who are in search of long-buried truths.

For more on the Reginald Moore Sugar Land Convict-Leasing System archives or to access any of the information contained at the Woodson Research Center, visit

About Katharine Shilcutt

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