In a momentous revelation, the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, has become the site of a profound historical discovery. After an extensive archaeological survey, the long-lost Port Tampa Cemetery, predominantly used as a burial ground for Black families during the era of segregation, has been located, confirming what had long been lost to history.
121 potential graves were identified within the military base’s boundaries, marking a poignant moment in the quest for historical recognition.
The search for additional graves will continue throughout 2024 as base officials remain committed to unveiling the obscured history of this significant site, as reported by ABC News.
2nd Lt. Laura M. Anderson, a public affairs officer at the United States Air Force MacDill Base, expressed the emotions surrounding this discovery. “It’s a solemn feeling to know that one of Tampa’s lost cemeteries is located here where we live and work,” she said. 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.”
The genesis of this remarkable revelation can be traced back to 2019 when researchers from the Tampa Bay History Center approached MacDill Air Force Base. They stumbled upon records dating back to 1939 that provided a rough description of the cemetery’s location.
Rodney Kite-Powell, a historian at the Tampa Bay History Center, elaborated on their investigative process, saying, “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.”
After a year of meticulous investigation, base officials determined that the cemetery was situated near the Tanker Way gate within the base’s grounds. In 2022 and 2023, officials conducted a non-intrusive archaeological survey, ultimately identifying 121 likely graves within the area that was once the possible location for the African American cemetery.
The significance of this discovery resonates deeply within the Black community. Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch, conveyed her sentiments, noting, “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.”
The research and surveys of the area will continue throughout the year, with the team relying on ground-penetrating radar, cadaver dogs, historical records, and other methods. Results are expected to emerge 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 explained.
To honor those interred at the site, the base held a service in 2021 and dedicated a memorial on-site. Anderson revealed that they would collaborate with community stakeholders to determine the appropriate actions to take regarding the Port Tampa Cemetery memorial following the conclusion of the expanded search.
Lewis believes that the land where the graves were found should be cleared and transformed back into a cemetery, accompanied by a plaque narrating the site’s history.
“This is a weighty matter, and it touches our hearts because our loved ones are not able to rest. It hurts because we’re speaking for those who are definitely, of course, not able to speak for themselves,” Lewis emphasized. “We have to right this wrong, and somebody needs to fix this part of history.”
The discovery of Port Tampa Cemetery within the MacDill Air Force Base signifies a significant step toward recognizing and preserving the historical and cultural heritage of the Black community. It stands as a testament to the unwavering commitment to ensure that these individuals are never forgotten again.