New Podcast Uncovers the Truth Behind 95 Bodies Found in Sugar Land

A mystery reveals a dark side of Texas’ history

Brittney Martin (left) and Naomi Reed (right) stand in front of Bullhead Convict Labor Camp Cemetery, the discovery and burial site of the Sugar Land 95 (Photo by Nwabundo Okongwu)

In 2018, construction crews working on a new school in Sugar Land, Texas, discovered 95 bodies in unmarked graves.

You can almost hear the eerie soundtrack of a true crime podcast just from that sentence – but Brittney Martin and Naomi Reed’s new podcast Sugar Land asks you to look past the standard tropes of the genre and instead reflect on the dark truths of Texas’ past and present.

“It’s hard to talk about, like, ‘We found all these bodies on a construction site,’ and not immediately go there,” Martin says.

The people in those graves weren’t the victims of a serial killer, but rather of the state. They were Black convict laborers unjustly “leased” by the state to sugar plantations in the early 20th century. Under the convict lease system, Southern states leased Black prisoners to manufacturers in order to retain the control of slavery and address the labor shortage in the aftermath of the Civil War.

That context caught the eye of Reed, an anthropology professor at Southwestern University. Having grown up in the neighboring town of Missouri City, Reed was familiar with the town’s affluent reputation and had conducted extensive field work on racial education in Sugar Land’s high schools. In 2021, she wrote an article in Anthropology News about the city’s failure to honor the Sugar Land 95, as they’ve come to be known. Martin, an independent journalist based in Houston looking to create a historical podcast about the case, read the article and reached out to Reed. With help from the Texas Newsroom (a public radio journalism collaboration), they got to work.

While they dug into the historical timeline, they discovered a parallel story unfolding in the present day. Fort Bend ISD, which now holds control of the cemetery, became one of Martin and Reed’s biggest obstacles. “They make it very hard to follow the progress of the research that they’ve done,” Reed says.

When Martin submitted a public information request to view the district's emails and documents, she was told that it would cost her $46,830 to process the information. Martin narrowed her search to specific words, hoping for a smaller price tag, and FBISD gave her a new estimate of over $15 million to process the search. Once the sticker shock wore off, Martin experimented with narrowing her requests further to try to understand the increase, but the district’s vague explanations of the price left her confused.

After an extensive legal back-and-forth, Martin was permitted to look through the unrestricted documents in person and note pages that she wanted digital access to, but when she received the documents, FBISD redacted information on the grounds of attorney-client privilege; Martin protested, since attorney-client communications comprised the majority of her pages of interest. Martin took her complaint to the Texas Office of the Attorney General, arguing that FBISD waived attorney-client privileges when they showed her the unredacted documents in person. The attorney general ruled in favor of the district, but Martin felt she had enough between her notes on the documents and other research. “I think that was absolutely the wrong call,” she wrote via email. “But it didn’t slow us down.”

Grave marker of one of the Sugar Land 95 in Bullhead Camp Cemetery (Photo by Brittney Martin)

Most of the historical information Martin and Reed needed wasn’t digitized or publicly available, so they traveled across the state to visit archive sites in person and submitted public information requests to state agencies. They conducted genealogical research for over 130 individuals going back to the 1800s, dug into both hyperlocal and statewide histories, and created interactive maps of Sugar Land with information from Stephen F. Austin’s first settlement to the present. Reed says that working on the podcast “really made me realize how much I didn’t know about Sugar Land, both as someone who grew up near it and as an academic.”

Martin and Reed are currently writing the final episode of the podcast, but the Sugar Land 95’s story is not closed. The search for descendants is still ongoing, and Martin and Reed are hoping that the podcast will connect potential descendants and members of the community to the cause. They encourage Texans to listen no matter their familiarity with the case or with Sugar Land – the past and present that they uncovered surprised even them.

“I thought it would be more of a history podcast,” Martin says, “but it became so much more a story about what’s happened since the bodies were found. A modern, present story about the systems of control – and namely, white control.”


The first three episodes of Sugar Land have been released on major podcast platforms, and the remaining will be released on subsequent Thursdays. More information and interactive elements can be found at sugarlandpodcast.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Brittney Martin, Naomi Reed, Sugar Land, Podcasts

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