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Historic marker honors Black cemetery erased during construction of MacDill

Port Tampa Cemetery disappeared when the base was constructed in the late 1930s.
MacDill Air Force Base on Tuesday dedicated a historic marker denoting the spot where the erased Port Tampa Cemetery was located.
MacDill Air Force Base on Tuesday dedicated a historic marker denoting the spot where the erased Port Tampa Cemetery was located. [ Paul Guzzo ]
Published Feb. 23
Updated Feb. 23

TAMPA — Patrick and Reatha Williams never spent time with their first child.

He was stillborn in 1930 during the third trimester.

But the Williams’ granddaughter, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell, said she has been told that the baby was so loved that there was a funeral.

Death records report he was buried in Port Tampa Cemetery.

“Everyone in any culture expects that you would be able to come see your loved ones” in a cemetery, Campbell said Tuesday on MacDill Air Force Base. “In this case, that didn’t happen and hasn’t happened since 1938, 1939 when the base began to be built.”

The cemetery was erased during MacDill’s construction in those years. The headstones were removed, but the bodies remained under still-undeveloped land that is part of the base near the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.

Campbell spoke at a ceremony at MacDill to dedicate a historic marker that marks the spot where Port Tampa Cemetery was located.

Doves are released at a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base dedicating a historic marker denoting the spot where the erased Port Tampa Cemetery was located.
Doves are released at a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base dedicating a historic marker denoting the spot where the erased Port Tampa Cemetery was located. [ Paul Guzzo ]

The marker reads, in part, “In remembrance and honor of them, we dedicate this plaque and consecrate these burial grounds with total respect and with full awareness that from this day forward they are recognized, acknowledged, and forevermore committed into God’s loving hands.”

MacDill’s marker is part an ongoing effort throughout the Tampa Bay area to memorialize Black cemeteries that were erased as historic Black communities were redeveloped during the early- through mid-20th century.

Five have been located since 2019. There are more to be found.

“I can’t help but wonder, had my grandparents … not been African Americans,” Campbell said, “things might have been markedly different.”

Related: A judge’s ancestor was buried in cemetery that may be at MacDill Air Force Base

Port Tampa Cemetery’s locale was discovered through a federal report on Tampa cemeteries — written in the 1930s but issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration.

At least 38 people were buried there.

MacDill released an archaeological report in November that said ground-penetrating radar in that area “identified anomalies as possible burials” with spacing that “is consistent with the use of an area as an expedient informal burial ground.”

Related: Possible Black cemetery found on MacDill Air Force Base

Colonel Benjamin R. Jonsson, commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill, said during Tuesday’s ceremony that means the cemetery is “likely” still there.

Hillsborough County Judge Lisa Campbell in Janaury 2020 looking over a copy of a death certificate for a relative who was buried in the erased Port Tampa Cemetery.
Hillsborough County Judge Lisa Campbell in Janaury 2020 looking over a copy of a death certificate for a relative who was buried in the erased Port Tampa Cemetery. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
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Port Tampa was established in the 1890s as a separate city.

Black residents moved there for jobs at the port, but those dried up once Port Tampa Bay opened to the east in the 1920s. Port Tampa was annexed by the city of Tampa in 1961.

It remains unclear when the cemetery was established. The cemetery was erased by the time the base opened in 1941.

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 ]

Port Tampa employment brought Campbell’s sharecropper family there from Georgia in either the late 1890s or early 1900s, she said, and her grandmother later cooked and cleaned on the base.

That she did so while knowing her baby’s grave had been erased from the property brought Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis to tears during her remarks at dedication ceremony.

“Your grandmother knew she couldn’t challenge the white man, because she had to be obedient,” Lewis said. “It has everything to do with the color of my skin.”

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

Jonsson said that “although we cannot right the wrongs from the past, we can acknowledge the injustice against those who laid their loved ones to rest in this place and we can treat them with the honor, dignity and respect that is long overdue.”

Said Campbell, “Reconciliation begins with acknowledgment. Reconciliation begins with the understanding that it was wrong.”