This Juneteenth, the African American Memorial by Hines A+D breaks ground in Texas

Set in Stone

This Juneteenth, the African American Memorial by Hines A+D breaks ground in Texas

The structure will be inscribed with symbols that derive from the Akan people originally of Sudan in present-day Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo. (Hines Architecture + Design)

Today marks the third celebration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Though celebrations of freedom have been held since 1865, when a Union general arrived in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, the movement to establish a national holiday began after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In line with Juneteenth’s mission and ethos, construction broke ground on a new memorial in Texas this afternoon that honors the way in which African Americans built Fort Bend County, and so much more.

Upon completion, the African American Memorial by Hines Architecture + Design (Hines A+D) at Allen M. Bates Park in Kendleton, Texas, will be a major national treasure. It will be the largest African American memorial in the state of Texas and the third largest in the U.S. after the National Mall’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, by MASS Design Group and Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

aerial view rendering of park where memorial will be situated
The 14-acre memorial park will be inside the 236-acre Bates M. Allen Park and provide trails that connect two historic Black cemeteries, Newman Chapel Cemetery and Oak Hill Cemetery. (Hines Architecture + Design)

The $10-million project is split into two phases: Phase one will deliver a 3-story precast memorial that centers a verdant park dubbed Juneteenth Plaza. Phase two will deliver the African American Learning Center at Bates Park that will acknowledge the Black labor which built much of Fort Bend County, Texas. The site will also serve as physical recognition of the generational trauma that slavery, mass incarceration, and lynching has caused for collective healing.

“The primary driver for me was to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to Fort Bend County,” Hines A+D’s founder Daimian Hines told AN. “The memorial is designed to reflect fragmentation in the African American diaspora. It leverages the site’s richness to tell a story about movement, migration, and the scattering of people away from their established ancestral homeland. It’s testament to how our fragmented history is filled in by collective memory.”

people in front of memorial
Juneteenth Celebration Lawn (Courtesy Hines Architecture + Design)

The project is years in the making and a joint collaboration between Hines A+D and Fort Bend County officials like Dexter McCoy, a Fort Bend County commissioner. It comes after a national news story broke in Texas about the Sugarland 95 which sparked a reckoning about the state’s long history of white supremacy and racial violence.

Six years ago, excavators working in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land made a grizzly discovery. In 2018, a construction crew employed by Fort Bend County to build a technical school unearthed the graves of 95 African Americans believed to be inmates from a nearby prison that died in the late 1800s. Those people who spent their lives endlessly working the “Hellhole on the Bravos” later became known as the Sugar Land 95.

Chattel slavery may have been abolished after the U.S. Civil War, but wealthy plantation owners quickly found new (legal) methods of enslavement, namely the convict-leasing system which provided capitalists with free Black prison labor.

The convict-leasing system was made possible by a pernicious caveat embedded within the 13 Amendment that declared slavery legal if it’s used as punishment for a crime, as described by Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? This system condemned the Sugar Land 95 and many, many more African Americans to a life of misery and backbreaking slavery for decades after 1865, and even continues today. (Check out Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag for more about that.)

black and white image of children prisoners
African American children in the convict leasing system circa 1903 (John L. Spivak/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Starting in 2018, some officials took action after the unmarked graves were found and sought to preserve the site. Toward that end, Houston’s Marilyn Moore founded the nonprofit Friends of the Sugar Land 95 to shepherd the memorialization effort.

Marilyn learned about the story in the 1990s because her husband, Reginald Moore, was a retired prison guard who for years spread awareness about the graves when few would listen. Moore and Jay Jenkins eventually founded the The Convict Leasing and Labor Project to ensure that the Sugar Land 95’s history was taught in Texas schools, an education system that has Draconian restrictions which create inaccurate, white supremacist versions of slavery in school textbooks.

The team garnered $4 million to preserve the hollowed ground, but the site’s conservation quickly foundered, and the initial budget was reduced to $1.5 million. Construction on the technical school proceeded as planned, but slivers of the site were cordoned off to build a small park for the Sugar Land 95. “It’s ugly,” Marilyn Moore told the NYT in 2018. “They don’t want it. It wasn’t in the history books. It has not been taught. And so now that they are becoming aware, they don’t want to talk about it. ”

After the deal collapsed, a separate site at Bates M. Allen Park in Kendleton, Texas—about 30 miles southwest from where the victims were unearthed—was subsequently chosen to memorialize the Sugar Land 95. It was around that time when Daimian Hines of Hines A+D caught wind of the project and joined up with Dexter McCoy and Friends of the Sugar Land 95 to bring it across the finish line.

view of cemetery today
Cemetery view today (Courtesy Hines Architecture + Design)

Kendleton, Texas, was an apt choice for a few reasons: It was one of the first Freedmen’s Towns in the U.S. built by newly freed African Americans after the U.S. Civil War. And Bates M. Park itself is home to two historic African American burial grounds that were only recently rediscovered: Newman Chapel Cemetery and Oak Hill Cemetery. For decades, cattle from a nearby farm had used the burial grounds for grazing and destroyed the headstones, rendering the sacred sites innocuous fields of grass.

The African American Memorial at Bates M. Allen Park seeks to acknowledge these winding histories and tragic events with a new public space of reverence, celebration, and storytelling. It will yield a 14-acre memorial park inside the 236-acre Allen Park and create trails that connect the two historic Black cemeteries desecrated by agriculture and history. “The African American Memorial will both honor the Sugar Land 95 and preserve the historic cemeteries,” Hines told AN.

walls inscribed with symbols
The precast structure will use symbolism from the Akan people. (Courtesy Hines Architecture + Design)

The precast structure coated in a powder red hue centering the memorial will be inscribed with symbols that derive from the Akan people originally of Sudan now in present-day Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo. In total, six symbols will abound representing authority and leadership reflective of Akan culture; wisdom of the past to inform the future; endurance, defiance, and resourcefulness; unity and community; God’s presence and protection; and hardiness and perseverance.

In the future, the reflecting pond will soon host a historical marker from the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice’s Community Remembrance Project. This effort memorializes the documented victims of racial violence throughout history, including four documented racial terror lynchings that took place between 1877 and 1950. Hines told AN that a memorial dedicated to victims of the convict-leasing system is also in the works.

Contractors hope to finish phase one of the project in exactly 12 months, by Juneteenth 2025.