Looking for clues: Group researches details on possible lost Port Tampa cemetery at MacDill

TAMPA, Fla — The search for a lost African American cemetery that could be on MacDill Air Force Base continues with the help of researchers from Georgia-based New South Associates.

“We’re looking for anything that may have said where a cemetery may have been, so anything on paper. So, we’re looking for the tangible, as well as the oral history, the emotional, the intangible, which all adds up to make the story,” said Velma Fann, a historian with New South Associates.

RELATED: Forgotten African American graves could be buried at MacDill Air Force Base

Fann is in town as part of an assignment to find out more about the missing Port Tampa City Cemetery. Dozens of death certificates confirm the cemetery once existed, and long-time neighbors have told 10News they always knew a cemetery once existed where MacDill Air Force Base sits today. However, there are very few official documents readily available on the lost burial ground.

 “We can’t find too much written about it. Even in books that speak of cemeteries in Port Tampa, this one is not mentioned,” Fann said. 

“How it has evaded everyone is puzzling and challenging.”

Fann said she will be in town with another colleague through next week researching and talking to people in the Port Tampa community about the cemetery. She’s been splitting time between community work in the Port Tampa area and the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court’s office searching for records.

Fann said part of New South Associates’ work incorporates research 10News has done on the cemetery since first reporting about it in November. 10News found from newspaper archives that the cemetery existed as early as 1902. 

A 1940s federal document from the Florida Department of Military Affairs also refers to the cemetery, so it’s likely the cemetery existed up to that time.

The federal government acquired property in Port Tampa City to build MacDill Air Force Base in the late 1930s. References to the cemetery show it sat in what is now a densely wooded area on base property.

MacDill spokesperson Brandon Hanner told 10News last week a cadaver dog search will take place to try and locate where any lost graves might be.

macdill graves

Emerald Morrow

RELATED: MacDill Commander on lost black cemetery: ‘We’re going to get this right’

“The cadaver dogs are going to go out and they can smell any remains that could have been buried in the area, and then the archaeologist is also going to look for any indications from an archaeological standpoint that point to a burial site or a cemetery,” he said. 

“Our main priority here and throughout the entire investigation is to make sure that we’re respecting the families and respecting the community and if there is a cemetery here, we’re respecting those that are buried there.”

The cadaver dog search is set to happen on Feb. 18.

If you have any information about the Port Tampa Cemetery, please email Velma Fann: vfann@newspouthassoc.com

Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10News WTSP. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@wtsp.com

You can see more of Emerald’s stories on the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area at wtsp.com/erased and on YouTube below.

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