Earlier this year, the remains of 95 people were found just outside Houston at a construction site for a new school. After analyzing the remains, archaeologists announced on Monday that newly discovered bones belonged to former enslaved African American who were still forced to work on plantations post-emancipation.
As the New York Times reports, experts who exhumed the remains say they were likely black laborers working as part of the “convict lease system”—an arrangement in which the Texas government sent its prisoners to live and work on plantations.
In essence, it was another way for state governments and wealthy white landowners to keep up the practice of slavery, even after slavery formally ended in the U.S. with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
Archaeologists say the site where the bones were found was once a plantation cemetery and was used from 1878 to 1911.
As the Times notes, the finding is notable for several reasons. Not only is it rare to find black cemeteries from the 1800s, but it’s even more unusual to find sites from this particular point in time—the convict release era.
The period is often neglected in American history lessons, particularly in the South. Texas, in particular, has come under fire for whitewashing its history.
One specialist in African-American archaeology, Ken Brown, told the Times that the finding was a chance to learn in finer detail what life was like for black people back then.
“We know it was crappy, we know it was tough—but what impact does all of that have on the body?” Brown said.
About 20 of the bodies, which were first found in February 2018, have been exhumed. They ranged in age from 14 to 70 years old, with the vast majority (19) being male. Researchers say some may have been former slaves.
From the Times:
So far, the results show that the men who were buried there lived difficult lives, researchers said. Their bones show stress from poor health during childhood, such as fever and malnutrition, and stress from repetitive work later in life.
...“They were really doing a lot of heavy labor from the time that they were young,” said Catrina Banks Whitley, a bioarchaeologist who is analyzing the bones.
It’s unclear at this point what will happen next with the bones. In Louisiana, an unmarked grave site holding the remains of some 1,000 enslaved African Americans was re-discovered at a Shell refinery five years ago. This year, the oil company announced plans build a memorial site for the descendants of those buried there, so they could visit and pay tribute to their ancestors (because it’s still private land, the space wouldn’t be open for the general public).
Researchers told the Times they hope to learn more about how the prisoners lived: what kinds of diseases they may have had, what food they ate, and where they grew up.