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‘Solemn feeling’: Officials to expand search after lost Black cemetery identified at Air Force base in Florida

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(FLORIDA) — Officials at MacDill Air Force Base confirmed the location of the lost Port Tampa Cemetery, a burial site where many Black families were buried during segregation, after an archeological survey identified 121 possible graves at the base in Tampa, Florida.

Research and surveys of the area for more possible graves will continue through 2024, base officials told ABC News.

“It’s a solemn feeling to know that one of Tampa’s lost cemeteries is located here where we live and work,” 2nd Lt. Laura M. Anderson, a public affairs officer at the United States Air Force MacDill Base, told ABC News on Friday.

She added, “But with that also comes a sense of closure, rediscovering Port Tampa Cemetery means we can now pay our respects to those who have been laid to rest here and know that they are no longer a forgotten part of history.”

In 2019, researchers at the Tampa Bay History Center reached out to the MacDill Air Force Base to alert them of the possibility that the cemetery was located inside the base after they found records dating back to 1939 that gave a rough description of where the Port Tampa Cemetery was located.

“I used that information and looked at maps that we had at the History Center, and was able to pretty much locate where that cemetery should have been on what is now the property of the federal government and MacDill Air Force Base, but at that time, was not,” Rodney Kite-Powell, a historian at the Tampa Bay History Center, told ABC News.

A year later, base officials determined that the cemetery was located near Tanker Way gate inside the base. In 2022 and 2023, officials conducted a non-intrusive archaeological survey that identified 121 likely graves located in what was the possible location for the African American cemetery.

“For the Black community, it means a lot,” Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch, told ABC News on Friday about the discovery of the grave site. “Some people didn’t even know that they had ancestors that were in some of these graves located in the cemetery.”

“So that right there is a sigh of relief, that we located the missing or the stolen African American cemeteries,” she said.

Research and surveys of the area will continue through this year, officials said. Similar to previous searches, the team will rely on ground penetrating radar, cadaver dogs and historical records and expect to have results sometime in mid-2025, according to Anderson.

“We are extending our search area to the north of where the majority of the gravesites of Port Tampa Cemetery are located to ensure we accurately define the boundaries of the cemetery and do not miss anything,” Anderson said.

The base held a service for those buried in 2021 and dedicated a memorial on site. Anderson said they will work with community stakeholders to determine what actions to take next regarding the memorial for Port Tampa Cemetery following the conclusion of the expanded search.

Lewis believes the land where the graves were found should be cleared and turned back into a cemetery, along with a plaque telling the story of the burial site.

“This is a heavy subject and it fills our hearts because our loved ones are not able to rest and it hurts because we’re speaking for those who are definitely, of course, not able to speak for themselves,” Lewis said.

“We have to right this wrong,” she continued. “And somebody needs to fix this part of history.”

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