Known But To God

Those revered four words are carved into the white marble of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Sadly, those four words apply to many graves here in Fort Bend County.  These forgotten lives have common traits. They tend to be in cemeteries of people of color. Some are likely the last resting place of slaves. Many are humans who were still denied their basic rights by states clinging to racism with Jim Crow laws after slavery was eliminated in our Civil War.  All of these grave sites have been poorly maintained. Some are inaccessible without a chain saw and cutters to fight through dense brush.  Many tombstones have fallen over or lie in pieces. Some have fire ants and weeds covering the graves. All of us in Fort Bend should feel concern for allowing this situation to occur.

The most extreme example of forgotten gravesites was the “Sugar Land 95.” Ninety-five victims – 94 men and one woman – were discovered in unmarked graves during construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center in 2018.  They were victims of the Convict Lease Program. This horrific program used a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment to imprison freed slaves on false charges, so they could be turned over to the landowners to work the sugar cane fields. The landowners did not care if they worked these “new” slaves to death. Some of the Sugar Land 95 were buried so quickly that their leg irons were still on their bones. The landowners would then get another prisoner from prison and work him or her to death. This practice went on for nearly thirty years.

Benjamin Franklin Williams’ grave in Bates Allen County Park in Kendleton.

We are fortunate for our community’s response to the discovery of the Sugar Land 95.  Fort Bend ISD sought advice from local experts like Reginald Moore and other interested organizations.  A common plan emerged:  mark the graves, get DNA evidence to identify the 95, and raise private funds to build a museum and learning center near the eternal resting place of these forgotten people.  The Sugar Land 95 showed that we are Fort Bend Strong!

During Black History Month 2022, I sought to do a weekly social media post on African Americans from Fort Bend who made Fort Bend Strong.  I started with the first African American in United States history to be elected sheriff of a county, Walter Moses Burton, here in Fort Bend.  Sheriff Burton was born into slavery, became our elected sheriff, and served seven years as our elected Texas State Senator.   Next on my list was Olympic Gold Medal swimmer and the pride of Austin High, Simone Manuel.

My third posting was about Benjamin Franklin Williams.  I learned Williams lived in the Freedman’s town of Kendleton, but there was controversy as to where and when he was buried.  The Texas State Historical Association said the “date and place of his death are not known.”   Other sources said he was buried in Kendleton.

Last month, I found Williams’ grave in Bates Allen County Park in Kendleton. A ratty sign that says “Grave Site” is all that marks where his body lies. A distant sign says, “Newman Chapel Cemetery.” Quite frankly, it is offensive that the final resting place of a true Fort Bend hero has been allowed to fall into such disrepair. His tombstone had fallen over a long time ago. It was impacted deep into the ground. Most of it was covered with grass and fire ants.  After twenty minutes of gently digging around tombstone, I was able to move it slightly.   A tiny snake crawled out when I finally freed the stone.

Nick Landowski.

Williams was born into slavery in 1819.  He was sold to slave owners in South Carolina and Tennessee before being sold to a Texas owner in 1859. He used his freedom after the Civil War to spread his Christian faith and serve his fellow countrymen.  He was the first ordained black Methodist minister in Texas, a three-term elected Texas State Representative, and Kendleton’s first U.S. Postmaster General.  He died in February 27, 1886.  To honor his legacy, I used a soft scrub brush, a bucket of tap water and fifteen minutes of elbow grease to clean Representative Williams’ tombstone. Benjamin Franklin Williams was, is, and will always be Fort Bend Strong!

The story does not end there. One hundred yards from Representative Williams’ grave is another historic black cemetery – Oak Hill Cemetery. There’s a county sign in the middle of a field recognizing Oak Hill, but there are no tombstones visible.  Fortunately, a fellow member of the Exchange Club of Sugar Land, Nick Landowski, had an idea where the cemetery was located.  Nick had been working with interested parties for over ten years to protect this historic cemetery. Nick became an army of one, and the cemetery was swallowed up by the brush.  It took Nick and I two attempts to cut through the brush to uncover a tombstone. Five volunteers from Exchange cut an 8’ x 8’ hole in the brush. We discovered almost thirty tombstones, parts of tombstones, or grave markers. My church, Christ Church in Sugar Land, also got involved. Glenn Morrison is a fellow parishioner and president of the Historic Cemeteries of Fort Bend County Preservation Society. Glenn joined Nick and I the next week after we had marked all of the historic artifacts with GPS coordinates. All of the tombstones in Oak Hill are African American, with many born into slavery. There is no pattern to the placement of the graves. There were parts of the brush we could not get through. We uncovered thirty burial locations; there may be thirty more out there waiting to be rediscovered. No one knows.

In a recent article in the Fort Bend Star, the head of the Fort Bend County Historical Commission’s cemetery committee, Robert Crosser, said that over one-half of Fort Bend’s 170 cemeteries are abandoned. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do, together, to address the problem.  That’s Fort Bend Strong!

Please do not rush off and take action at our historic cemeteries without first contacting the county for guidance. These are the final resting places of human beings and must be respected.  I had to file paperwork with the county to take the corrective actions I have taken thus far.  Please contact Nick or me via the Exchange Club of Sugar Land’s website,, if you would like to join us on future efforts.  I’m always available at

As always, stay Fort Bend Strong.