Task Force May Study Unmarked Pensacola Graveyard
Florida’s new Task force on Abandoned African-American Cemeteries recently convened for its inaugural meeting. Coincidentally, the June discovery of human remains under a historic Pensacola building has led to a 137-year old map that once marked the spot of a nearby graveyard that could fall under the scope of the group’s work.
“There was a map, I think it was labeled 16th street from 1884 and I thought well, this could be something,” said Adrianne Walker, interim archivist and staff archaeologist at the University of West Florida Historic Trust, recalling her search through Pensacola’s map index.
She says the large hand-drawn map, which looked old and had been taped multiple times, appeared to be exactly what she was looking for, a diagram of the area where the human remains were found under the old Boy Scouts building on East La Rua Street.
“I pulled it out, put the two pieces together and looked at it and realized that it is in fact a map of that area that includes what is Miraflores Park area,” Walker said, pointing out that it’s not marked on the map, because this map pre-dates the establishment of that.
“But, sure enough, there’s a kind of dotted line that’s marked “graveyard” in part of Miraflores Park and under 16th Ave.
The park, in Pensacola’s Old East Hill Neighborhood, was previously known as Havana Square.
Walker said she was asked by WEAR to look in the archives. And, following up on reports of newspaper accounts from over a century, she says there’s growing evidence of burials there.
“I did look through newspapers at Newspapers.com; I mean you can search the search term, Miraflores Park or Havana Square. And, it was just those couple that we’ve already seen through the press about, in 1887, halting the burials of African-American people there,” she said.
“As far as the historic report of an African-American cemetery there, we’ve known about that for some time and we’ve told the state archaeologist and the city archaeologist about that report,” said Dr. Elizabeth Benchley, director of the UWF Archaeology Institute, acknowledging that the cemetery has been on their radar.
She confirms the 1884 map is a new piece of the broader puzzle they have yet to solve.
“So, we’re researching the landowners that are on that map, shown in the area, to try to get a better understanding of who was in the community at that time, and might have been using the graveyard,” Benchley said. “Even though the newspaper accounts said that it was African-American, we aren’t finding confirmation of that. We’re finding other kinds of people living in the area.”
According to Dr. Benchley, it’s hard to know what was happening in 1884. But, even though the current status of this one-time graveyard in Pensacola is unknown, she says it’s potentially part of the growing state and national problem of unmarked cemeteries.
“In this case, the public is worried about something that was labeled an African-American cemetery, but it happens to all groups,” stated Benchley.
She says the law was originally written to cover Native American burials, which are often unmarked. But, she also has worked on European burials that became unmarked.
“So, it happens as the landscape changes, as the centuries pass, people lose track of graveyards that are no longer maintained.”
“It looks to be the type that goes missing, goes missing from our landscape and goes missing from our historical documents,” said Jeffrey Moates in reference to the possibility that the Pensacola cemetery could be among that type of burial ground to be studied by the state’s new Task Force on Abandoned African-American Cemeteries.
Moates is regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, based out Tampa at the University of South Florida, and he’s been appointed to the 10-member panel, which held its inaugural meeting July 20 near Tallahassee.
“That’s primarily what the task force is set up to look at, the breadth of the topic, of the issue, and then to make recommendations to see how the state of Florida can protect these places further, as well as further identify them across the state,” said Moates.
Already, state officials estimate around 3,000 abandoned or neglected African-American cemeteries across Florida to be identified. It was the recent discovery of the historic 1901 Zion Cemetery in Tampa, with at least 800 African-American graves, that led to the legislation (HB 27) that created the task force. Moates says the law signed by Gov. DeSantis in June, requires a report by January.
“We’ll look at providing mechanisms or tools for outreach to communities where we can gather information and kind of set the stage for that,” Moates stated.
“The work to identify and really locate potentially 3,000 cemeteries is not going to happen in the four-month or six-month time period that the task force is convened. So, I think the work will continue into many decades from here.”
“Nothing happens quickly in archaeology,” confirmed Dr. Benchley, back in Pensacola.
She said she’d like for her UWF Archaeology team to get to work on the Miraflores Park site, with remote sensing such as ground-penetrating radar to first determine if a graveyard still exists there.
But, she says the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed their already deliberate and measured processes.
“We hope to take a look at that. We have to get city permission, it’s on city land and go through all those steps and then report what we find to the state as well,” she said, adding that, in this case, there’s no hurry.
“At the same time, no development was planned for the park, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to rush right into it.”
Benchley says UWF will know more about how to proceed after the office of the state archaeologist concludes its investigation into the discovery of the human bones that were found nearby.