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

The property was a burial ground for people who lived in the old city of Port Tampa.
Vacant land along Manhattan Avenue at the north end of MacDill Air Force base may the site of the forgotten Port Tampa Cemetery.
Vacant land along Manhattan Avenue at the north end of MacDill Air Force base may the site of the forgotten Port Tampa Cemetery. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Nov. 20, 2019|Updated Nov. 20, 2019

TAMPA — At a meeting called to announce that graves had been found at one forgotten cemetery, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller dropped a bombshell about another.

“There are going to be more of these found,” Miller said, then he provided a location — the South Tampa neighborhood of Port Tampa.

There was no other mention of the revelation as the Hillsborough County School District went into detail about the recent discovery of 145 caskets beneath a one-acre section of King High School.

But Miller might be right.

Records indicate there was once an African-American burial ground in Port Tampa. Today, the land is behind the fence that marks MacDill Air Force Base.

MacDill has started looking into it, spokesman Lt. Brandon Hanner told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

“As of now we cannot confirm the existence of a cemetery on base,” Hanner said. “However, we do have resources that will be allocated in the near future to either confirm or deny it is on the base.”

RELATED STORY: Radar finds 145 graves buried beneath King High School in Tampa

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

According to an report on Tampa cemeteries issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration, you reached the Port Tampa Cemetery by starting at the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, heading south 884 feet, turning east and going 1,327 feet.

Following those directions puts the cemetery entrance on base property just past a fence on Manhattan Avenue. The property beyond is largely vacant, with just a few roads and trees.

MacDill Air Force base opened the same year as the cemetery report was issued.

Port Tampa was established in the 1890s as a separate city.

“It had the first port in the Tampa area,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. “It grew to a major phosphate and lumber port and also a major port entry.”

African-Americans moved there for the jobs at the port, Kite-Powell added, but they dried up once Port Tampa Bay opened to the east in the mid-1920s. The city of Port Tampa was annexed by the city of Tampa in 1961.

The cemetery timeline and how many people may have been buried there remain unclear. The Times found three obituaries for African-Americans that list Port Tampa Cemetery as their final resting place.

MacDill’s search for the cemetery comes as the Tampa Bay area learns about other black burial grounds forgotten and developed over the years.

Paupers, nearly all of them African-American, were buried at Ridgewood Cemetery on the property that is now King High School. The segregation-era Zion Cemetery was found under a portion of the Robles Park Village Housing projects along North Florida Avenue in Tampa.

Port Tampa Cemetery has long been rumored to have been destroyed, Kite-Powell said, but he isn’t sure what the word was meant to describe.

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“My belief,” he said, “is that, like the other ones, it was forgotten and left behind.”