Did officials know there was a Black cemetery on MacDill when it was built?

Decades ago, an unidentified woman saw an unearthed child’s grave where the cemetery was located.
The main entrance to MacDill Air Force Base.
The main entrance to MacDill Air Force Base. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Nov. 20, 2020

TAMPA — Between the 1930s and 1941, another Tampa Bay area cemetery was lost or forgotten. How?

Last week, a report indicated that a cemetery was likely found locally for the fifth time in 16 months. The latest is the Port Tampa Cemetery for Black residents, which ground-penetrating radar indicates to be just behind the MacDill Air Force Base fence along Manhattan Avenue.

“It hurts the same, again and again,” NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis said.

Historians say it is no coincidence that each of the five lost cemeteries were mostly for Black people and disappeared during a racist era in area history.

But the reason for each disappearance is not black and white. Each has its own story. The stories of the first four cemeteries have been somewhat flushed out. Now, historians turn to the Port Tampa Cemetery.

“Evidence points to a few possibilities,” Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center said. “Hopefully, there is more evidence to be found that provides clarity.”

That evidence he seeks could come from a woman cited in MacDill’s recently-released report on the archaeological search for the Port Tampa Cemetery. Her account indicates that those building the base from 1939 - 1941 knew that the cemetery was still there.

Related: Possible Black cemetery found on MacDill Air Force Base

A different report on Tampa cemeteries — written in the 1930s but issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration — said the Port Tampa Cemetery for Blacks 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. That places it within the boundaries of modern MacDill.

MacDill’s recently released report says the search for the cemetery was “inconclusive.”

“Because of the heavy forestation, the ground-penetrating radar was not able to positively discern a cemetery,” a MacDill spokesperson emailed the Tampa Bay Times. But since the radar found nine grave-like anomalies in the area identified in 1941 as a cemetery, MacDill will now treat it as such.

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 ]

The report also says there are records for 38 burials in Port Tampa Cemetery between 1902-1933.

There could be more, Kite-Powell said, because deaths were not always officially recorded prior to 1910, especially for Black residents.

The MacDill report says an unidentified woman claims she grew up next to where MacDill is located today. She recalled finding an unearthed the grave of an “infant in a little white dress … in an area of a Black cemetery.” The report does not indicate how the girl was unearthed or when it occurred.

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“Those answers could tell us a lot,” Kite-Powell said.

The report only says the “burial was not exposed by construction on Dale Mabry Highway, but had been disturbed by other actions.”

The woman, according to the report, now resides in Mississippi and once posted that memory on the Florida GenWeb genealogy website.

That fits the description of Sue Gambrell. She wrote a similar story on Florida GenWeb that identifies her as a Mississippi resident. She wrote that she was 6 at the time. Public records state she is now 87, dating her memory to 1939 when MacDill was under construction.

“They came to survey for MacDill Field (now MacDill AFB),” she wrote.

In response to this memory, MacDill told the Times via email, “The Works Project Administration was in charge of surveying in what we now call MacDill AFB in 1939 and specific details of local eye witness accounts during that time are awaiting the release of a final report.”

The Times left a voicemail at a number listed for Gambrell. She did not respond.

Lewis said regardless of who disturbed the grave, one thing is clear to her: “The cemetery was intentionally forgotten and covered up. They wanted the land, and nothing was going to stop them.”

Related: Racial tension was high at MacDill in ’40s when a black cemetery disappeared

That seems to be the case with Tampa’s Zion Cemetery. A white developer purchased the Black cemetery in the 1920s, removed the headstones and built storefronts on the land. Last year, archaeologists confirmed that hundreds of Zion graves are still on the property that today is home to five now-vacant public housing buildings, warehouses and a tow lot.

Kite-Powell believes Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown, found on Tampa’s King High School’s campus last year, was simply forgotten as the decades passed, likely because such cemeteries typically have unmarked graves. The cemetery land remained vacant when King High was constructed in 1959, he pointed out, when the location of the cemetery was still public knowledge.

Then there are the two Black cemeteries discovered this year in Clearwater — St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery on the FrankCrum campus and an unnamed cemetery discovered on unused land owned by the Pinellas County School District. Each was moved in the 1950s, but the unmarked graves were left behind and ignored, even as members of the Black community voiced that bodies were still on the properties.

Kite-Powell said there are questions to be answered before the disappearance of the Port Tampa Cemetery can be labeled nefarious.

The cemetery is on the edge of the base, he said. “If they knew it was a cemetery, why didn’t they just cut it out of their property? They didn’t need that piece of the property.”

It is possible that neither MacDill leaders nor the federal government knew a cemetery was there, he said. The report’s unidentified woman said there were no grave markers and the cemetery wasn’t listed in city directories or on maps.

The only known official document that mentions the cemetery location is the Works Progress Administration report, but base construction was complete when that was released in 1941.

Maybe the construction crew that unearthed the grave never reported it, Kite-Powell said, and maybe Port Tampa’s Black residents in era of segregation were too afraid to say that their cemetery was being erased.

“They were taught that they were powerless,” Kite-Powell said. “They did not have a voice.”

Or perhaps, like the cemetery at King High, it was forgotten over time.

“They didn’t build anything on that land except a railroad spur,” which are secondary tracks for loading and unloading cars, Kite-Powell said. “So, there was little ground intrusion in that part. There could be a reason for that.”

Hillsborough County Judge Lisa D. Campbell, whose maternal grandparents buried a stillborn in the cemetery, acknowledges it is important to learn what happened. But, for now, she wants to focus on how to memorialize those left behind.

The base suggests erecting a marker near Dale Mabry Gate that allows the community to pay respects.

“It is always important from a historic perspective to know how a cemetery was lost,” Campbell said. “But I am encouraged that the base wants to provide permanency to the location, maintain it as a cemetery and acknowledge that it is a sacred place.”