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MacDill Air Force Base reopens cemetery investigation after historical records confirm graves

A new search will start next year after records revealed two graves were found on the property during construction in 1941.

TAMPA, Fla — MacDill Air Force Base said Thursday leaders are reopening an investigation into an erased African American cemetery after 1941 Hillsborough County Commission meeting minutes confirm two graves discovered on property during construction.

This discovery comes after an exhaustive search in 2020 found inconclusive evidence of the Port Tampa Cemetery. A war-era, federal Works Progress Administration document suggested the African American cemetery existed in the area where MacDill is now.

“My heart is heavy…” said Yvette Lewis, president for the Hillsborough NAACP.

The commission meeting minutes from 1941 came as the base was still undergoing construction. The minutes said the graves were found “…approximately 200 feet South of the railroad track, MacDill Field, which are in the way of further construction.”

MacDill said this is in the same area where the 2020 search took place.

The minutes also said the Air Corps would move the graves if the county approved. However, it is unclear if that ever happened.

A MacDill spokesperson said the commission meeting minutes serve as an official record and new reason for them to reopen their investigation with a new search.

“I commend MacDill Air Force Base for what they did and what they’re doing to help us tell the truth when it comes to what actually really happened to the African American graves,” said Lewis.

Over the last two years, archaeologists have found hundreds of graves from destroyed Black cemeteries across the Tampa Bay area. The search for graves at MacDill is one of several. The search for Zion Cemetery in the Robles Park area was the first, and it resulted in the discovery of nearly 300 graves under apartments and businesses along N. Florida Avenue in Tampa.

“It’s really important when it comes to history, not just African American history, but everyone’s history,” said Lewis.

A spokesperson at MacDill said the new search for graves is expected to start in January.

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