Dozens of possible graves from former Black cemetery found at MacDill Air Force Base, military officials say

Years after Florida military officials say they were first notified about potential graves of a former Black cemetery on the grounds of what is currently MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, 121 possible graves have now been located.

In 2019, the Tampa Bay History Center reached out to the MacDill Air Force Base after finding archival evidence about there possibly being a former Black cemetery on land now occupied by the base, MacDill Air Force Base Deputy Chief of Public Relations Terry Montrose told CNN on Saturday.

The military base was officially activated on April 16, 1941, according to its website.

The base hired a contractor and for two years, they searched for additional burials, Montrose said.

With the help of ground penetrating radar and cadaver dogs, Montrose said 11 possible graves were found “in an area that indicated that there might be a cemetery.”

The MacDill Air Force Base held a memorial service and dedicated a plaque for those buried there in February 2021.

After 2021, Montrose said they kept searching, and as of this week, they have discovered 63 possible graves and 58 probable graves which, according to city records, were part of what was once Port Tampa Cemetery.

Military and civilian personnel bow their heads during the Port Tampa Cemetery Service of Remembrance at the MacDill Air Force Base on February 23, 2021. - Airman 1st Class David McLoney/US Air Force
Military and civilian personnel bow their heads during the Port Tampa Cemetery Service of Remembrance at the MacDill Air Force Base on February 23, 2021. - Airman 1st Class David McLoney/US Air Force

Port Tampa Cemetery was a segregation-era burial site for area Black families and “was one of several African American cemeteries in the area that had been forgotten or purchased for redevelopment,” according to a historical marker at the base.

“What we didn’t realize at the time was that we weren’t over the top of where we really needed to be,” Montrose said.

“So, we decided to keep looking, and so we pushed out way farther, 300 meters west, and that’s where we found most of the bodies over the past two years,” he said.

The bodies were likely buried between 1840 and 1920, and over 1.34 acres have been searched, according to Montrose.

He added the military base has allocated funds through this year and plans to finish the search in 2025.

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