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

A search for graves is scheduled soon. One story from the era: Nazi prisoners persuaded the U.S. to make African American patients eat separately.

TAMPA — On at least one occasion during World War II, the U.S. government sided with the Nazis.

German prisoners of war assigned as cooks at a MacDill Air Force Base hospital in early 1945 threatened to quit working unless injured black soldiers were moved to a separate mess hall.

The federal government ordered MacDill commanders to comply. Morale on the base “plummeted,” according to a research paper titled GI Joe Meets Jim Crow written by historian Gary Mormino and published in The Florida Historical Quarterly in 1994.

The history of racial relations at MacDill is surfacing again because of new research showing that the Port Tampa Cemetery for African Americans may have been erased to make way for the base at the tip of South Tampa. Archaeologists soon will be searching for graves on land at the northwest boundary of the base. There is no known record that bodies there were ever moved.

Port Tampa Cemetery would be the third forgotten burial ground to come to light in Tampa during the past year. One was a black cemetery and the other a pauper’s field where most of those buried were black.

But the story of Port Tampa Cemetery is just one of many that demonstrate how African Americans, during the age of segregation, were treated as second class citizens at MacDill and across the region.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Mormino’s research detailed the tension on military bases across Florida during World War II. Still, Tampa stood out among his accounts.

“In 1942, as a result of repeated episodes of violence and civil rights violations, the American Civil Liberties Union branded Tampa one of eleven centers of repression in the United States,” Mormino wrote.

The Port Tampa Cemetery served the African American community beginning in the early 1900s.

According to federal records, it was on the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue on land that today is a mostly empty lot behind the MacDill fence.

[ Times ]

The word “destroyed” is used in written accounts to describe what became of the cemetery, but historians aren’t sure what that means.

“African American cemetery destroyed for MacDill AFB,” reads the Port Tampa Cemetery entry at the website Hillsborough County Cemeteries Online, documenting local burial grounds past and present.

The cemetery was said to have disappeared by the time the base opened in 1941.

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

Perhaps the cemetery was ignored because of the economic impact MacDill promised to bring, Mormino told the Tampa Bay Times.

“MacDill’s announcement in the late 1930s came at a time when the cigar industry was slumping and would never recover the eminence it once held," he said. "The Great Depression continued to haunt Florida in general and Tampa in particular. A black cemetery was not an obstacle.”

Mormino reported in his research paper that city officials made it clear to black soldiers stationed at MacDill during World War II that they were not wanted.

In one account he retold, black soldiers arrived by train and were met by a deputy who told them “about southern manners and morals and about how social life was limited to one area of town — the black district along Central Ave.”

In that district, during July 1941, white military police officers shot and injured two black soldiers over what news accounts described only as an argument.

“A near riot ensued as black soldiers charged the policemen,” Mormino wrote.

Historian Gary Mormino wrote the paper "GI Joe Meets Jim Crow," published in "The Florida Historical Quarterly" in 1994. [ Times (2018) ]

Two years later, there was another near riot, this one at MacDill, following an argument between a “tired, irritable white saleswoman” and a black serviceman, Mormino wrote.

The altercation drew a crowd and a fight broke out. "Fearful” African Americans grabbed their guns. No one was injured, but 10 soldiers stood before a court-martial and were handed 10-year sentences.

A riot did break out in 1944, in the downtown black neighborhood known as “The Scrub.” An African American soldier cursed at a police officer who was on his way to a narcotics raid, according to Mormino’s research.

There was a standoff and other black soldiers and residents came to the serviceman’s side.

“A huge mob, estimated at more than 4,000 assembled,” the former Tampa Daily Times reported. The serviceman was eventually taken to a nearby military police station.

“Faced by the menacing guns of Army men,” the crowd “finally dispersed,” the former Tampa Morning Tribune reported.

A year later, the Nazi prisoners successfully lobbied the U.S. government to force injured black servicemen to dine separately from whites.

“The German prisoners of war,” reported the Atlanta Daily World, “have started here a system of working hat in hand with the Bourbon South," an apparent reference to continued racial discrimination in the region.

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

By 1945, wrote Mormino, “MacDill housed 3,000 black servicemen, comprising a quarter of the base’s troop strength. In July 1945, a single black chaplain constituted the only officer.”

At the time, Mormino wrote, citing the NAACP, “The post’s policy is complete segregation of races.”

The same can be said for Tampa in the time when the Port Tampa Cemetery disappeared.

Relations between the African American community and Tampa law enforcement in the decades before the 1940s, Mormino wrote, “had been at best patronizing and negligent — at worst, racist and brutal.”