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Experts search for relatives after dozens of bodies exhumed in unmarked Texas cemetery

Bodies exhumed from unmarked cemetery

FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas -- A state agency in Texas focused on historic preservation is calling on people to get in touch if they believe one -- or more -- of their relatives may have been buried in a recently-discovered unmarked cemetery.

"If they have any information about the history of the area, they think they have a connection to some of the people who have been buried here, to come forward, to be part of the discussions," said Pat Mercado-Allinger of the Texas Historical Commission, CBS affiliate KHOU-TV reported.

As of this week, 48 sets of remains believed to have been buried between 1878 and 1910 have been exhumed from the site, which is located in Sugar Land, Texas. In total, 95 sets of remains have been found. They are believed to be African-American prison inmates who were forced to work on plantations.

It can take as long as 24 hours for each set of remains to be cleaned and examined, according to experts, and it could take up to a year for all of them to be forensically analyzed.

The results could offer a clearer window back in time, said Mercado-Allinger.

"It gives us the opportunity to learn more about what has been told or under-told about the history of Sugar Land," she said.

KHOU-TV reports that the Texas Historical Commission has worked closely with the Fort Bend Independent School District since construction crews building a new career and technical center on the property unearthed the site's first set of remains. Crews digging a trench came across the first set of bones in April. 

The site where the bodies were found is the first cemetery associated with the state's convict leasing system, which was outlawed 108 years ago, according to KHOU-TV.

"So far, we have all males and one female," said Catrina Banks Whitley, a bioarchaeologist. "They range anywhere from 14 to anywhere between 15 and 70 years of age."  

DNA testing of the bones might eventually be done for identification purposes. While the Fort Bend Independent School District said such testing is expensive given that it's a delicate process, it's something the district and the Texas Historical Commission might be open to, KHOU-TV reported.

Fort Bend Independent School District, which owns the property, said experts might be finished exhuming bodies at the site within the next few months.