TAMPA — Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell expected to learn that an ancestor’s grave could be beneath MacDill Air Force Base when news broke in November that the lost Port Tampa Cemetery for African-Americans might be there.
After all, she said, her family has ties to Port Tampa dating back to its inception at the turn of the 20th century.
Last week, the Tampa Bay Times informed Campbell that her maternal grandparents’ stillborn baby was buried in Port Tampa Cemetery in 1930.
“It was expected,” Campbell said, “but it’s still hurtful.”
Next month, the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center and private sector archaeologists will begin the physical search for the early-20th century burial ground on the land near the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue where it was located before the base was built.
Today, the property is largely vacant, with just a few roads and trees.
Campbell awaits the next step should they find human remains.
“If we are in a position to provide DNA, we have two people who would be full blooded siblings," she said, those being her uncles Kelly and Morris Williams, 86 and 84. “We’d like for them to allow us to take those remains and bury them with other family.”
If that is not an option, Campbell said, the base needs to “segregate off that section and keep it a cemetery in a way that allows people to go there.”
Meanwhile, her family will work to identify other possible ancestors buried there. Anyone named Green, Jones or Sirmons could be related to them.
Via a genealogy search, the Times identified Campbell as a relative of the stillborn baby born to her maternal grandparents Patrick and Reatha Williams.
Port Tampa was established in the 1890s as a separate city.
African-Americans moved there for the jobs at the port, but those 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.
Port Tampa employment brought Campbell’s sharecropper great-grandfather Earnest Williams there from Georgia in either the late 1890s or early 1900s.
It remains unclear when the cemetery was established and how many were interred there.
The Times has so far identified 69 people buried in Port Tampa Cemetery from 1902 - 1933. Of those, 22 died at birth.
It does not lessen the hurt that the baby who would have been her uncle never took a breath, Campbell said.
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Her maternal grandparents, Campbell said, refused to forget their son.
For instance, her late-mother Doris Campbell’s birth certificate lists the three siblings with whom she was raised plus one “stillborn.”
That baby is the only of Campbell’s ancestors without a known grave. She figured he did not receive a proper burial because he was a stillborn.
“The fact that he was buried suggests to us that he was loved,” she said. “He would have been my grandparents’ first child.”
News archives report that in 1939 the military began clearing land for construction of the base. Campbell’s still-living uncles were too young then to remember anything of that time.
Campbell’s grandmother Williams would later cook and clean on the base.
If her grandmother’s child’s grave was still there, hidden under the earth, Campbell said, “I cannot imagine how she felt.”
Still, Campbell said, she can understand why neither her grandparents nor any African-American stopped a desecration of the burial ground, if one occurred in that racist era.
“You have to put yourself in the position of persons who were living in the 1930s, 40s and 50s in a very segregated community,” she said. “They may have felt powerless."
That’s also why historians believe African-Americans did not stop Tampa’s segregation-era Zion Cemetery from being erased. Storefronts were built on the land in 1929 and Robles Park Village housing projects in the early 1950s.
Acting on a Times report that Zion might still be there, archaeologists recently discovered hundreds of caskets were never moved.
“That does not suggest they were meek or cowardly," Campbell said. "They may have felt they would not be heard.”