The 2018 dig is a reminder that all the joy I locate in Texas soil—as a consumer, lover, and wanderer—required initimate engagement with Black death in the Hell Hole on the Brazos. The land developed for Texas’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economies reflects a violence that relegates Black bodies to the dirt, then literally builds on them, for the sake of progress and profit. This progress would overwrite enslavement and its afterlives altogether. There are numerous unmarked graves, burials, and bodies gone to dust and countless histories interred in the land. The Sugar Land 95 remind us that those gone to dust still reside in the dirt—and that the flesh that becomes dirt is not only a memory embedded in the land but also an archive providing access to that memory. Dirt offers Black Texas a tangible afterlife. It is intelligible only to those whose flesh is familiar with it, who feel it in their bodies, who have consumed it or are deeply connected to it. Dirt preserves Black Texas life, even in its density.
Dirt offers Black Texas a tangible afterlife.
Scholar L. H. Stallings writes that dirt is a “tool, ingredient, or craft material . . . a conductor of sacred energy.” I surmise that Texas dirt reveals difficult truths, one of which is Texas’s legacy of carcerality. Dirt offers an alternative epistemology—one that outlives the region’s many structures perpetuating violence and historical erasures. Dirt also negates material archives (documents, photos, infrastructural memorialization of the Alamo, plaques along the Brazos, and statewide social science curricula that often erase Indigenous and Black Texas life) as the sole means to advance knowledge of Texas and its origins. Wear it down, dirt seems to say. In time, dirt reveals what it holds. This alternative epistemology asks us to start with the bare soil. Its memories, dense flesh, what it knows and how it can heal, demand that we engage in the messy practice of unearthing. My encounters with Texas dirt allow me to remember differently. In this archive, Black Texan folks—who continue to communicate even in death—are whole enough to be properly remembered as humans who had feelings, wanted to love and be loved, desired freedom, and grew abundant community alongside sugar. Sugar Land has long presented a façade, but it has always been the Hell Hole on the Brazos for the 95. The sugar economy—its mills, factories, the neighborhoods and tours that it made possible—was a multilayered concrete cover built over histories of sugar, violence, and Black labor.12
The ground, in and of itself, has too often been excluded from discussions of southern enslavement, despite emerging work on Black ecologies and geographies. But, here, dirt serves as a text that allows us to chronicle Black life under settler colonialism. When we eat dirt, we practice unearthing alternative archives—of memories, past lives, legacies, and afterlives. We also resist more destructive forms of consumption. There are many Black afterlives that have yet to be unearthed.13
Today, what was once an unknown mass grave is now the Bullhead Camp Cemetery. The Sugar Land 95 have been given proper burials with individual caskets, a public ceremony, and newly dedicated tour grounds for public visits—all with the city’s promise that this dirt will serve as a reminder and a lesson for the community. And I sense that Texas dirt still has more to tell.
Endia L. Hayes is a doctoral student in sociology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her work engages methods of alternative archiving among Afro-Texans by tracing sensorial, sonic, affective, and immaterial embodiments as a map of early twentieth-century Texas. She is also a contributor to Environmental History Now (EHN).