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Black cemetery may have been found

Published Nov. 9, 2005|Updated Nov. 14, 2005

Seashells, bits of glass, a clearing, all that is left, some say, of a church and cemetery in northwest Hernando County that once served a black community called Freeman.

To get to Tooke Lake (Colored) Cemetery, as it is described in a 1940-41 Works Progress Administration survey, walk "from the forks of the road at Weekiwachee Springs, take right-hand road east for 1 and 5/10 mile. Turn north and continue 3 and 7/10 mile; walk west 40 steps to South Gate of cemetery."

The fork, the right-hand road and the 40 steps west no longer end at the south gate of the cemetery, at least not from what anyone can tell.

Those 40 westward steps might end east of U.S. 19. Perhaps the south gate of the Freeman cemetery lies somewhere beneath the highway.

Or maybe the directions from the fork and the right-hand road led, once, to some point west of what is now U.S. 19; led to what has become a graded clearing once set aside for a golf course at Glen Lakes, where the developer now wants to build single-family homes.

It's this possibility that has complicated local response to Glen Lakes Partnership's plans to build houses on 293 acres to the north of the current development, touching a nerve among local black residents who see in it an extension of the county's racist past.

"African-Americans have played a big part in this community since the early 1800s, and it seems like this county has an agenda to overlook all of their accomplishment and achievements, and if they can't overlook them, they try to downplay them," said Paul Boston, a local black activist.

Boston's protest at the Oct. 12 County Commission meeting prompted the commission to delay approving Glen Lakes' rezoning application. The commission is scheduled to vote today.

The builder and engineer for the project did not return messages from the Times.

This much is certain about Freeman: From the late 1890s to the years just following World War I, the community lay north of Weeki Wachee and south of the Centralia community.

Robert Amison, a planning technician with the county Planning Department, said the rough directions in the WPA survey, which was conducted to locate the graves of Civil War and World War I veterans, end beneath U.S. 19.

"That's where I think it's at," Amison said.

Two separate investigations using ground penetrating radar failed to find the cemetery, according to county records.

But Bill Burger, a Florida archaeologist and anthropologist, thinks he found the old cemetery square inside Glen Lakes' proposed expansion.

Burger was hired by another developer to conduct an archaeological survey east of U.S. 19, where much of Freeman would have been. On his own, he ventured west of U.S. 19 in search of the remains of the church, following a 1914 map.

The map shows a sand trail running roughly west to east, through Freeman, across what is now U.S. 19, north of Tooke Lake, which is east of the highway.

The trail likely ran past the Petteway turpentine operation, north of the church and cemetery, Burger said. Aerial photographs taken as recently as 1988 show what remains of the sand trail, closely following the line plotted on the 1914 map, he said.

"By comparing the two, I could pretty specifically locate where the cemetery and church were located," Burger said.

The imprecise site designated as the Freeman church and cemetery was first registered in the Florida Master Site File in Tallahassee in 1990 by Ken Sutherland, a county planner who helped designate the site as part of the county's comprehensive plan.

Sutherland and a state archaeologist walked over the clearing west of U.S. 19 more than 15 years ago. Sutherland collected a few artifacts and turned them over to the May-Stronger Heritage Museum in Brooksville. Sutherland also remembered seashells scattered over the site.

"This is typical of African-American graves, to mark the graves with seashells," Burger said. The shells represented a tribute to the ocean, an African tradition. Another tradition is the likely location of the cemetery: near the westward end of the community, closer to the setting sun.

These small clues convinced Burger he had found the right spot. Any evidence now is below ground, Burger said. But where?

Burger thinks a more thorough radar review will find the remains, likely only teeth and coffin nails. But he recommends a search over a 5-acre area, roughly five football fields, an expensive undertaking and an effort not required of developers under Florida laws governing abandoned cemeteries.

The developer is simply required to report any human remains uncovered during construction.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at alodersptimes.com or (352) 754-6127.

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