Why do We Know so Little About Convict Leasing?


Depiction of Convict Leasing on a Sugar Land Bridge


Imperial Sugar Water Tower


Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land

The end of convict leasing was quiet and gradual enough that many Americans did not notice the change. For obvious reasons, neither the state nor local governments wanted to claim responsibility and ownership of a system that reminded many observers of slavery. Businesses that leased convicts continued to operate, now using legal labor supplies, and prisons where leased convicts were housed remained in operation. Convict leasing never quite garnered enough public attention to become a historical priority as the years distancing it from the present increased.

By the end of the twentieth century in Sugar Land, most of the landmarks associated with convict leasing had become obsolete and the city attempted to move on from its past. By selling buildings from the Central Prison Farm and the Imperial Sugar Factory, the city repurposed facilities to better serve their growing population, but did so at the expense of historical preservation. Large tracts of land that had been farmed by convicts were sold to Newland Communities and developed into the neighborhood currently known as Telfair, despite a lack of certainty over whether or not there were convict graves located on the land. Similarly situated land was given to the University of Houston to build a Sugar Land campus. The quickly growing population of Sugar Land has very little knowledge or awareness of the convict leasing past of the land, due to a historical separation created by time and, indirectly, by city action.

Why do We Know so Little About Convict Leasing?