Possible Black cemetery found on MacDill Air Force Base

The base suggests erecting a marker near Dale Mabry Gate that will honor the dead.
The red square indicates where possible graves from the Port Tampa Cemetery for Blacks were discovered on MacDill Air Force Base.
The red square indicates where possible graves from the Port Tampa Cemetery for Blacks were discovered on MacDill Air Force Base. [ Courtesy of the "Archaeological Survey to Locate the Port Tampa Cemetery on MacDill Air Force Base" via Yvette Lewis ]
Published Nov. 13, 2020|Updated Nov. 14, 2020

TAMPA — Graves from a lost segregation-era Black cemetery might have been discovered on MacDill Air Force Base.

This would be the fifth lost cemetery found in the Tampa Bay area over the last 16 months.

The Port Tampa Cemetery for Blacks was once near the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue. That land is now part of the base. The cemetery disappeared around the time the base opened in 1941.

There are no known records of the at least 38 bodies buried there being moved.

Archaeologists began looking for the cemetery earlier this year and their report was sent to MacDill on Friday.

NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis also received a copy of the report. She shared it with the Tampa Bay Times.

Related: Records show a black cemetery might lie beneath MacDill Air Force Base

MacDill has not yet replied to a Times request for comment via email. Voicemail to a base spokesman did not pick up.

A report on Tampa cemeteries — written in the 1930s but issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration — said the Port Tampa Cemetery could be reached by starting at the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, heading south 884 feet, turning east and going 1,327 feet.

Ground-penetrating radar in that area “identified anomalies as possible burials," the archaeological report provided by the NAACP said. “While these anomalies were not clustered or arranged in patterns typically seen in historic cemeteries, their spacing is consistent with the use of an area as an expedient informal burial ground, where intermittent burials took place and where individual burials would not be in family groups or arranged in obvious rows.”

According to that report, there are four other areas where the cemetery could have been located:

• Immediately west of where the radar discovered grave-like anomalies. That spot is suspect because aerial maps from 1938 show it as a cleared square area.

• A 45-acre “wooded area in the northwestern area” of the base near where the radar possibly found graves. Because the archaeologists could not confirm the cemetery’s boundaries, the archaeologists recommend the “wooded tract be treated with caution in the event that human remains may be present.”

• Oral history also placed the cemetery possibly near or under the base’s laundry facility near Manhattan Avenue or just outside the base near the Port Tampa’s Firehouse #19.

Archaeologists investigated each of those other areas with radar and dogs that can sniff human remains but found no evidence of burials.

Still, those areas should be considered “sensitive,” the report read, and any work that could disturb possible graves should be avoided.

Overall, the report said, the archaeologists found obituaries and death certificates for 38 people buried in the cemetery. That included 12 stillborn infants. The Works Progress Administration report stated it was a Black cemetery, but archaeologists did find one death record for a white burial.

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The base suggests erecting a marker near Dale Mabry Gate that will honor the cemetery, according to an email from MacDill to the NAACP that Lewis also shared with the Times.

“Be it known that this plaque serves as a memorial to those dearly departed love ones who are believed to be buried on MacDill AFB at what was known as the Port Tampa Cemetery,” is suggested language for the marker.

It would also include this quote from Hillsborough County Judge Lisa D. Campbell, whose maternal grandparents buried a stillborn in the cemetery: ""Through the curtain of time, we find you here, in infinite peace. We call your name and you answer in legacy and honor. Rest. Eternally."

Port Tampa was established in the 1890s as a separate city. African Americans moved there for the jobs at the port, but they dried up once Port Tampa Bay opened to the east in the mid-1920s. MacDill opened in 1941 and Port Tampa was annexed by the city of Tampa in 1961.

Related: Read how the Zion Cemetery story unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times.

Graves from four other cemeteries have been discovered in the Tampa Bay area over the last 18 months — two in Tampa and two in Clearwater. Three of those were for Blacks. The fourth, Ridgewood Cemetery found on Tampa’s King High School campus, was for the indigent and unknown, but records indicate nearly all the burials Black.