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MacDill to use cadaver dogs in search for forgotten African-American burial ground

The investigation into Port Tampa Cemetery starts next month on base land near Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.
A search begins next month for another forgotten African-American cemetery, this one on land at the northwestern edge of MacDill Air Force Base. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA — Next month, MacDill Air Force Base will begin its search for the forgotten Port Tampa Cemetery.

The burial ground for African-Americans might still be on base land near the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.

The Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center will work on the search with Stone Mountain, Ga.-based New South Associates, which provides cultural resource management services, according a news release issued Thursday morning. The Civil Engineer Center provides environmental, historic and cultural support.

“If MacDill finds a cemetery, we want to make sure that we did right by those buried there, their families, and the community,” the news release says.

In January, the search begins with a review of the cemetery’s history, a process of sifting through archives and interviewing people who might have memories of the burial site’s location, size and number of graves.

Then, in February, the team will bring in dogs that can sniff out human remains.

“Once the surface reconnaissance and cadaver dog survey is complete, more intrusive surveying may be done to further investigate the area,” the news release says. “Prior to this happening, the base will coordinate further with the community to decide what the appropriate next step will be.”

A report on Tampa cemeteries issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration provides directions to the cemetery: Start at the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, head south 884 feet, turn east and go 1,327 feet.

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

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

African-Americans moved to the Port Tampa for jobs in the 1890s when the area was an incorporated city.

But the jobs 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.

MacDill’s search comes amid new attention to local African-American burial grounds that has followed the discovery by the Tampa Bay Times of forgotten Zion Cemetery in Tampa. Buildings were erected atop Zion even though more than 800 graves may still lie there.

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