Officials at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., say they have confirmed the location of a lost former Black cemetery on the grounds of the base, and identified 121 potential gravesites, capping three years of archaeological surveys and building on earlier findings.

“We’re ready to say this is Port Tampa Cemetery,” Senior Master Sgt. Terry Montrose, a base spokesman, said on Sunday.

Between the 1840s and 1920s, dozens of individuals, mostly Black, were buried in unmarked graves at the Port Tampa Cemetery in Tampa, he said. The Air Force base was built at the site between 1939 and 1941.

The base started searching for gravesites in 2019 after historians at the Tampa Bay History Center alerted officials that there might be a former Black cemetery on land now occupied by the base, Sergeant Montrose said.

Using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs, searchers found 11 possible unmarked graves between 2019 and 2021. That wasn’t enough to conclusively say they had found a cemetery as the graves were spread sporadically, Sergeant Montrose said.

“But there were enough bodies that we thought we should memorialize it,” he added.

The cemetery was discovered on a grassy area near a flight line on the base, which is spread over more than 5,700 acres.

The base held a memorial service in February 2021 and dedicated a plaque to those buried there.

“This cemetery was erased; this cemetery was forgotten; this land was taken from them,” Yvette Lewis, the president of the Hillsborough County branch of the N.A.A.C.P., said at the time, of those buried there. “Their loved ones laid them down so they could rest their souls, not to be trampled over, covered up, walked on.”

A Hillsborough county judge, Lisa Campbell, whose grandparent’s first-born child was buried at the site, told attendees, “We all are going to have to grapple with how and why things like this happen.”

“Anyone from any culture expects you would be able to come see your loved ones if you wanted, to come sit and solemnly remember them; in this case that didn’t happen,” she said.

Base officials continued searching, and between 2021 and 2023 discovered another 110 possible or probable graves, Sergeant Montrose said.

The findings led officials to confirm that the site was the Port Tampa Cemetery, he said, because the graves were grouped tightly together in a one-acre area, “so we know it’s an area that was purposely created to bury bodies.”

A historical marker at the base describes Port Tampa Cemetery as a burial ground used by community members who did not have the means to establish formal cemeteries.

“It was one of several African American cemeteries in the area that had been forgotten or purchased for redevelopment,” the marker reads.

In recent years, several of these cemeteries have been rediscovered in Tampa.

In 2019, at the edge of the C. Leon King High School campus, school district officials identified what they believed to be Ridgewood Cemetery, where mostly African Americans were buried in the 1940s and 1950s.

In the same year, land that has since been occupied by warehouses and public housing was identified as Zion Cemetery, an African American cemetery that was built in 1901, in which hundreds of people were thought to have been buried.

Last year, Florida enacted a law to help protect and preserve historic cemeteries and burial grounds uncovered across the state. The measure will create a historic cemeteries advisory council that will research and uncover lost cemeteries.

MacDill Air Force Base will continue searching for more unmarked graves until the end of the year, Sergeant Montrose said. After the search is complete, officials will consult with community stakeholders about next steps.

“We don’t think we’ve found them all,” he said. “We don’t know how many more there might be.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *