‘The Graveyard … Is Bigger Than Anyone Thinks’: Florida Officials Say Human Bones Discovered Under City-Owned Building Likely Linked to African-American Cemetery

The Florida Department of State has confirmed that human remains found under a community building at a Pensacola park belonged to an African-American cemetery.

A 137-year old map documenting the existence of a cemetery near the Miraflores Park. (Photo: Screenshot/WEAR-TV)
A 137-year old map documenting the existence of a cemetery near the Miraflores Park. (Photo: Screenshot/WEAR-TV)

A group of Boy Scouts discovered the bones in a crawl space while doing a clean-up at the Miraflores Park in June. City officials and researchers suspected the remains were from an African-American cemetery based on old newspaper clippings and a map. The Florida Department of State reaffirmed their assumptions on Monday.

State officials have not confirmed the exact location of the gravesite. University of West Florida (UWF) historians believe it dates back to at least two centuries.

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said the area would be preserved, most likely with a historic marker.

“The plan will certainly be to leave it and make sure that we don’t do anything in that area that would disturb any ground or anything else going forward,” Robinson told WEAR-TV. “We will certainly recognize the importance and magnitude to those individuals and their families.”

Florida law protects human graves and cemeteries regardless of if they are on private or public property. It is illegal to “willfully and knowingly disturb human remains.” Other forms of memorials such as markers, tombstones, fences and vegetation are also protected under the state’s law.

Florida officials estimate there are around 3,000 abandoned or neglected unidentified African-American cemeteries across the state.

The Florida Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, creating the Taskforce on Abandoned African-American Cemeteries to find and preserve the burial grounds last year. The task force held its first meeting in August, WUWF Public Media reported.

In 2019, 2.5 acres of land was confirmed as the site of an African-American cemetery, created in 1901, with at least 800 graves. Tampa has since launched the Zion Cemetery Preservation and Maintenance Society to protect the land and artifacts related to it.

The city had earmarked about 1.5 acres of the land for a housing development in 1949 before discovering three coffins.

Records show two historic African-American cemeteries in Escambia County, where Pensacola is located, and an additional section for African-American graves in a larger cemetery.

Adrianna Walker, interim archivist and staff archaeologist at the University of West Florida Historic Trust found a 137-year old map documenting the existence of a cemetery near the Miraflores Park.

The hand-drawn map from 1884 looked tattered and had been taped multiple times, Walker said. The map was drawn for a trespassing report. It shows that some of the property where the park lies was part of a fenced gravesite.

Walker also found newspaper articles from 1887 about ending the African-American burials close to the park. UWF researchers are still finalizing their findings.

“UWF completed the analysis, is now writing the report and will be sending it to appropriate parties. Therefore, at this time, we are not able to speak on this situation,” the university said in a statement.

“Analyses take time and UWF is carefully working with the remains to be respectful and ethical in the analysis. The remains are not forensically significant rather they are historic. At least six months is normal for conducting analyses on a historic case. Once the report is provided to the State they will decide on next steps.”

Local resident Debra Oliver said she is upset it took the state so long to confirm its findings. Oliver told reporters she has been doing her own research, and she hopes the city will be transparent and preserve all of the land.

“The graveyard is, I think, a lot bigger than anyone thinks it is,” Oliver told WEAR-TV.