95 bodies—how sanitizing slavery keeps America’s hands clean
Slavery never went away. It was reinvented, reconstructed, and obscured.
The remains of ninety-five Black people were recently found buried at a construction site in Sugar Land, Texas. The vast majority of reports about this discovery neglect to call these dead Black people what they really were: enslaved.
This essay contains discussions of racialized state violence, slavery, and lynching.
“African-American forced laborers” have been found in Texas, they say. These are the remains of “Black inmates who worked on plantations,” or “Black prisoners,” or “Jim Crow-era forced laborers.” These were “Black people forced into labor–after slavery ended,” but these Black people, laboring against their will and working on plantations, were absolutely not enslaved. They couldn’t have been. Slavery had already ended. Abraham Lincoln freed them in 1863, the 13th Amendment passed in 1865, and this particular graveyard was likely used from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
No, slavery was long gone by then. Nothing more than a blemish on the face of U.S. history. Not a continuing system, an organized and intentional industry in which Black people were dehumanized, kept in bondage, and used to build up the wealth of this country. These ninety-five discarded bodies were just inmates, prisoners, laborers.
The hard life they led is written on their bones. Experts can see the stress that their bodies once held, traces of their illnesses and malnutrition, even from childhood. They can read their bones and see the labor they were made to perform—repetitive, strenuous, heavy toiling.
“They were exploited, they were beat, they were hung,” says Reginald Moore, the man who spent the past fifteen years adamantly insisting to officials that this graveyard existed. As a dedicated historian and long-time prison reform advocate, Moore has dedicated much of his studies to the history of convict leasing in Houston, Texas—something he calls “more or less slavery by a new name.”
That is how systems of oppression operate. They transform and manifest themselves in different ways, but they do not wholly disappear with the simple signing of a document. Slavery never went away. It was reinvented, reconstructed, and obscured by decades of falsehoods and misrepresentations.
Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th explores mass incarceration as a legal form of modern slavery, and highlights the insidious tactics which made this metamorphosis possible and sustainable. Following the Civil War and the “abolition” of slavery, the economic productivity of the South was in crisis after losing so much free labor. In response, whites sought out ways to enslave Black people again, and loopholes in the 13th Amendment easily allowed for such a compromise.
Newly emancipated Black people were arrested for violating vagrancy laws, then charged and convicted of minor offenses which carried long sentences that included the same labor they had once performed for their former masters. This was done systematically, and this is how the economy of the U.S. was built up again.
These are parts of history and the truths about slavery that have been hidden from us. Not just overlooked, but buried. Buried like all those bones in Texas.
The experts say finding a graveyard like this one is rare, but that ain’t because more graveyards like it don’t exist. The Devil’s Punchbowl ought to be common knowledge, but it’s not. In Natchez, Mississippi, this post-Civil War concentration camp claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 “freed” Black people in less than a year, according to researchers. A mass grave holds their remains, but the terrain is too harsh for anyone to excavate. They will likely remain there forever. It’s said that wild peach trees grow in the area, but no one will eat from them because they know what has fertilized the strange fruit.
Mississippi’s shame is abundant. It is one of the Southern states in which Black people were enslaved well into the 1960s. Historian and genealogist Antoinette Harrell collects stories from some people who did not gain their freedom until the 1960s. So far, her work shows this happened in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida, and she’s still not done.
White society is always in the business of controlling the dominant narrative and sanitizing history. This is especially true in the case of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, diminishing the impact that white supremacy has had on Black people born in this country.
White violence, domestic terrorism, mass shooters. These things cannot be scrutinized or criticized or connected to the long history of white supremacist colonialist terrors. White fragility won’t let us. Lies and propaganda won’t let us.
But Black activists? More like Black Identity Extremists supporting white genocide. Colin Kaepernick’s protest is a pointed aggression and disrespect against the American flag and war veterans, not a criticism of the police brutality that leaves a disproportionate amount of Black people dead at their hands.
The Confederate flag is about Southern tradition and pride, not a symbol of the South waging war in order to keep the institution of chattel slavery in tact and maintain the economic prosperity that free labor ensured.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was just like good white liberals at heart. He wouldn’t want us to protest and demonstrate and riot. He wouldn’t want us to stand our ground and fight back against the neo-Nazis who directly threaten us with violence.
All of these fabrications, and many more, are to support the myths of white genocide and post-racialism. The myth that Black Liberation has already been achieved and we don’t need to fight for it. We’re crazy if we fight for it—irrational, unreasonable. We should be grateful. We should be patriotic. We should be thankful that slavery ended, like, 300 years ago. We should just get over it.
The experts exhuming bodies in Texas say they want us to contact them if we believe any of the remains unearthed during the archeological dig might be our relatives. Well how the fuck are we supposed to know?
I just returned from my family reunion last week. It was with my late father’s side. Unbeknownst to him, he had seven siblings, not just the two he thought he had his entire life. Five had been adopted out to other families spread throughout the country, and some did not know the others existed. They were lucky enough to find each other after being separated for more than forty years. They found us, too—their late brother’s wife and children.
It was an emotional reunion. It always is with us. We always come with questions, asked and unasked, about our family, our ancestors, our roots. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey—we know that some of us came from or ended up in these places, but where are the rest of us?
Each reunion, one of my eldest aunts comes with information she has gathered in her continuing genealogy research. Her name is Dorothy. We call her Aunt Dot. This year, she told us about how she found the first generation of “free people” in our family, and the names of their parents, who had been born into slavery. I didn’t commit their names to memory. I should have. I couldn’t. It hurt too much to think about over a continental breakfast at a Florida hotel.
That’s it. That’s as far as the branches of our family tree extend for now. At this point, our dear Aunt Dot might have to start looking at property records rather than census records to find more names. Even then, how many will be lost to us? How many children were forced upon our foremothers and then ripped away from them and sold off elsewhere? How many of our ancestors were in love and unable to marry because their masters forbid it? How many ended up right back in “forced labor” camps after they were supposedly emancipated? How many died from back-breaking work, or by suicide, or by lynching, and then what?
Aunt Dot won’t have marriage licenses and birth certificates to look at anymore. She won’t have death certificates either.
How the fuck am I supposed to know if any of those bodies found in Texas, or anywhere else, are my family? How the fuck am I supposed to know if any of my blood spilled on that ground?
Reginald Moore has spent the last fifteen years fighting for proper recognition for those enslaved in Texas after the Civil War. They play a significant role in its history, he says, and that history has been mostly forgotten and obscured.
I will likely never know if any of the people buried in those graves are my kin, but I hope they find their way to someone’s ancestral altar. And I hope they are immortalized and endowed with the historical recognition that they deserve.