TAMPA, Fla. — USF anthropologists found 45 new unmarked cemeteries and burial sites in Hillsborough County and they're not just African American burial grounds, but several minority groups.
It’s been a great concern across Florida for decades — unmarked cemeteries and burial sites, specifically African American graves. With a lack of documentation, cities, counties, and the state are trying to figure out where they might be.
In January of 2020, Hillsborough County commissioners asked a group of anthropologists from the Florida Institute of Anthropology and Applied Science at USF to investigate if there are any unmarked cemeteries on county-owned properties. The group presented their findings to commissioners in a report Wednesday.
“I believe then as I do now that we have a moral obligation to see if indeed any of these sites exist on lands we manage. We owe that to the families and the community as a matter of human decency," said Ken Hagan, County Commissioner for District 2.
ABC Action News went through the report. Here’s what they found:
▪ Forty-five additional unmarked cemeteries and burial grounds in Hillsborough County
▪ Fourteen have geolocation data, 31 have general vicinity location information
▪ Fourteen sites were historically classified as African American or AfroCuban
▪ Three sites had White and Black, Hispanic and Asian sections.
▪ Fifteen sites were classified as White during segregation, many were family plots.
Report regarding unmarked c... by ABC Action News
The report also states, “In addition to White and Black designations for segregation during the Jim Crow Era, other ethnic, religious, and national groups also practiced historically separate burial areas in HC including the Italians, Spanish, the Spanish Asturians, white Cubans, Afro-Cubans, Catholics, Protestants, and Jewish communities.”
Commissioner White thinks memorials at these sites are warranted with a modern-day digital touch — a QR code, you could scan with your phone to pull up historic information about the site.
The commission unanimously gave the go-ahead for the second phase of USF’s research which includes going out to county-owned sites to conduct ground-penetrating radar studies and make its research available to the public, and impacted cities and agencies. They’d like to see phase two research completed by the end of the year.
For many, the importance of identifying these sites is to preserve them and make sure they’re not built on.
Private property near Woodlawn Cemetery in Tampa has been an area of concern for advocates.
There’s not enough research to know if there are in fact Black graves there, but Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis spoke out against a recent proposal for a land-use change on the property.
“If you don’t understand your history, your history has a tendency of repeating itself… Is this land that important that you would build on something that has such a huge question mark over?” Lewis asked.
The USF report is separate from the state’s task force established by State Representative Fentrice Driskell last year, which is trying to figure out the same thing but state-wide, which could include more than a hundred forgotten graves in every county.
“The recent discovery of 45 unmarked cemeteries is a reminder that our work to preserve history and bring dignity to the deceased is just beginning. I am proud of the efforts we are making at the state level to address abandoned cemeteries, and specifically African American cemeteries that were neglected, stolen, or abandoned. This is a pervasive, statewide issue that requires the State to partner with local communities, and it is an honor to carry HB 1215 this legislative session to create an Office of Historic Cemeteries within the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources. If passed, my legislation would establish this office to protect and preserve abandoned and forgotten cemeteries and to serve as a nexus among state and local governments, which is needed now more than ever."
She also said exploring private properties may need to happen, but depends on the situation.
“In Florida, we are very strong on property rights and we want to make sure we aren’t doing anything to weaken that,” Driskell said. “But, at the same time, we can acknowledge there may be a compelling public policy interest or community interest in investigating whether there is a cemetery on a private property.”
- Neighbors fight land-use change for private property some believe is African-American burial site
- Lawmakers introduce bill to create a new Historic Cemeteries Program to record, study and memorialize forgotten black cemeteries
- Tampa city leaders address progress, work to be done to protect historic cemeteries
- More graves found at forgotten African American cemetery in Clearwater
The USF anthropologists also found other sites, not on county property, but instead owned by the Hillsborough County School Board, City of Tampa, Aviation Authority, private property, and property ownership that is unknown at this time.
According to the report, the group will now work on completing a project digital archive through the USF library, locating and documenting additional land titles, tax records, and other land records, and fieldwork for select sites.
The group also plans to establish a group to develop guidelines to document, preserve, and memorialize these sites.
The report states that research included:
“Combined spatial data, historic aerial images, and base maps including historic USGS topographical quad maps, historic plat and road maps, cemetery plot schematics, homestead maps, insurance maps, HOLC redline maps, and various city/county maps for Hillsborough County (1845-1950).
▪ Georeferencing procedures assigned real-world coordinates to the available aerial imagery and all base maps that were brought into a viewable relationship with the modern landscape with the creation of a secure web application in GIS.
▪ Research and verification feedback to the GIS geodatabase application, with archival and historic records inclusive of any burial information.”