Feb 17, 2022 - News

Hillsborough County approves search for potentially lost cemeteries

A lone headstone sits on sand

A view of the Memorial Park and Centro Español de Tampa cemetery in Tampa. Photo: Octavio Jones

Hillsborough County commissioners wasted no time in voting yesterday to further explore three possible forgotten burial grounds on county-owned property.

  • The vote came swiftly after they heard a report from University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle detailing the sites and listing more than 40 other possible lost graveyards on private land in the county.

What they're saying: "I think we have an ethical and moral obligation to see this through," said commissioner Harry Cohen.

Driving the news: As we first reported yesterday, Kimmerle and a team at USF spent two years plowing through historic records and overlaying maps and aerial photographs to find burials that had been lost to time.

  • The project noted 45 lost or forgotten cemeteries and burial grounds.

Flashback: The 2019 discovery of two African American cemeteries on public property prompted the project.

  • "I think the county has a tremendous opportunity here to pay respects to those who may have been forgotten by history at this point," said commissioner Stacy White. "And we have some opportunities for education."

What's happening: The vote means Kimmerle or whomever the county hires will focus on three sites on county-owned property where burials have possibly been lost:

  • Along the northern edge of the Marti Cemetery in West Tampa, where graves could be under Columbus Drive or commercial development.
  • The Lewis Family Cemetery on county land near the Alafia River in Lithia.
  • And a cemetery noted on a 1916 plat map near a memorial for John Carney in Valrico.

What's next: They'll use tools like ground-penetrating radar, LIDAR, drone surveys and digging shallow "ground-truthing" trenches to locate lost burials.

  • Commissioners asked for a final report on those three properties by the end of the year.

Kimmerle said the project could serve as a model for other places wishing to locate lost cemeteries, and there could be hundreds or thousands across the South.

  • "We were very focused on Hillsborough County, but this is an issue for every county in Florida, and the state," she said.

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