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Search for possible Black graves grows after 121 found at MacDill AFB

TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force plans to expand its search for grave sites in a former Black cemetery at a base in Florida after discovering 121 potential sites already, a base official said.

Air Force spokesperson 2nd Lt. Laura Anderson told news stations Feb. 19 that a nonintrusive archaeological survey performed over the past two years at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa identified 58 probable graves and 63 possible graves. The base also deployed search teams to go over the area with ground penetrating radar and cadaver dogs.

It plans to look at an area to the north of the main cemetery area this year for any additional evidence of graves, Anderson said.

“That’s essentially so we can make sure that we’re not forgetting anybody,” she told WFTS-TV.

The Tampa Bay History Center notified MacDill officials about the possible Black cemetery in 2019, and the base hosted a memorial service in 2021, dedicating a memorial on site to those buried there.

The headstones at the Port Tampa Cemetery were removed during construction of the base in the late 1930s, but the bodies remained there, the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2021. The area must stay free of vertical structures for aircraft safety, so it has not been developed.

Officials said they will continue to work with the community to determine how to best document the site and to pay respect to the people buried there.

“We know obviously there was wrong done in the past, but we’re working together with our community members,” Anderson said. “We want to make what was wrong right.”

Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County branch, told WFTS-TV base officials have gone “above and beyond” in resolving the concerns of community members. But she would like to see additional efforts to memorialize the site and make sure its story is told correctly.

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