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Hillsborough County gets serious about search for lost graves

County commissioners received a report outlining plans for deeper research on where graves that have been forgotten or destroyed over time might be hiding.

TAMPA, Fla. — The search for more cemeteries that have been lost or erased over time is getting full support in Hillsborough County.

On Thursday, county commissioners received a report outlining plans for deeper research on where graves that have been forgotten or destroyed over time might be hiding.

This all came about after a whistleblower used records to lead archaeologists to hundreds of graves from two lost African American cemeteries in Tampa.

"We're just really getting started,” said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, the forensic anthropologist behind the report. Kimmerle also played a large role in the investigation into graves at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.

So far, Kimmerle says her team has compiled a list of about 45 cemeteries that might have been lost or destroyed, but she realizes that list might be incomplete. 

"We know it's sort of an underrepresentation because that's based on cemeteries in the written record, and so many burial grounds are not in the written record because they may have been part of the convict lease system or going back to the time of slavery...so we know there was a lot that was never documented or recorded,” she said.

The work in Hillsborough County was inspired by a former county worker who shared research that led archaeologists to discover about 300 graves from Zion Cemetery in Tampa, and 145 more from Ridgewood Cemetery in a field at King High. The Zion graves are located under three different, but adjacent properties: Robles Park Village apartments, Sunstate Wrecker Service and a lot owned by local businessman Richard Gonzmart.

RELATED: After more grave discoveries, Tampa reconsiders cemetery definition

To find cemeteries on county property, Kimmerle said her team will rely on historical records and maps, but will need access to other resources including county history and development records, as well as interviews with people in the community to piece together the history of the missing cemeteries.

"When we're looking particularly…at African American cemeteries that have gone missing or from the record...it really speaks to a time in history when that wasn't documented,” she said.

Hillsborough County Public Works Director John Lyons said the forthcoming research from Kimmerle and her team could even change how the county acquires property in the future.

Kimmerle said it could be a while before she’s able to give the county an exhaustive list of lost or destroyed cemeteries that might exist in the area or on its properties, but it’s work she’s committed to because it’s work she believes is important. "Families who have loved ones buried there have rights to access them and that's important. It's also important in terms of cultural heritage."

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. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.

RELATED: More lost African American cemeteries are likely hidden in Hillsborough County

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