Miami cemetery changes development
Historic Miami cemetery alters development project
As researchers confirm that a Miami cemetery unearthed by construction crews was the final resting place of pioneering black residents, developers erecting a residential complex on the site move to keep what remains of the burial ground.
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
The mysterious, long-forgotten Lemon City cemetery unearthed by construction crews earlier this year will likely be preserved as a historical monument to the pioneering black Miamians who were buried there in the early 20th century.
Preservationists will ask Miami's historic preservation board to evaluate the cemetery for landmark designation at a hearing on Tuesday, but the site's future nonetheless appears secure.
The developers who are building an affordable-housing complex on the site, on Northwest 71st Street just east of Interstate 95, are redrawing their plans to move future construction off the remaining portion of the cemetery. The developers unknowingly erected a residential tower on a portion of the property that researchers and archaeologists now believe was occupied by the burial ground for which no legal record exists.
But an unbuilt parking garage and a second housing tower will be erected elsewhere on the large property to keep what remains of the burial ground as open space, said Lucia Dougherty, an attorney for the developers, Carlisle Development Group and Biscayne Housing Group.
Those alterations to already-approved permits will require extensive review by city planners, as well as approval by the city commission, Dougherty said. But she said she anticipates no problems.
``I think everybody's going to be happy about this,'' Dougherty said. ``It's the best thing to do.''
The land to be set aside includes not just the perimeter of the burial ground as determined by archaeologists, but a buffer zone around it as well, Dougherty said. A memorial of some type, to be determined in conjunction with preservationists and members of the black community, would eventually be installed, she said.
The developers' decision to preserve the burial ground came after researchers found historical confirmation of the previously unknown cemetery's existence in a 1941 book published by the Works Progress Administration, a government agency set up as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The book cataloged the burial places of American World War I veterans and includes a description of the location of a Lemon City ``colored'' cemetery in Miami that precisely matches the site of the newly discovered burial ground.
``That's what sealed it,'' said preservationist Enid Pinkney, who is leading the effort to win historic designation for the cemetery.
Official designation, however, is not assured. Ordinarily, cemeteries do not qualify for designation under city code unless they have distinctive architectural features or are the burial place of historically prominent individuals.
Pinkney acknowledges there is so far no evidence of any historical figure buried in the Lemon City cemetery, which has no gravestones or markers.
But she believes the cemetery should be designated under a section of the code that recognizes places that exemplify ``historical, cultural, political, economic or social trends of the community.''
Pinkney says the cemetery is one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Jim Crow laws that once mandated separation of blacks and whites ``even in death,'' as she wrote in an application for designation.
The discovery of the cemetery in April by construction workers who found human remains and pieces of coffins in excavated dirt piles mystified historians. The developers and city officials who reviewed the project plans had been unaware of it because the cemetery does not appear on any plats or other legal records. Portions of the lot had been previously built on.
The burial ground sits just west of the old farming settlement of Lemon City, but no local history records refer to a cemetery in that area.
While details of the burial ground's history remain sketchy, researchers have confirmed that the cemetery served as the final resting place for black Miami settlers and their families in an era when the city was legally segregated.
MAPPING THE SITE
The first pieces of evidence were two commercial maps, one from 1925 and a second from 1936, that indicated a cemetery was located on the site. Then an elderly woman surfaced with a memory of attending a farmer's funeral there as a young girl, leading historian Larry Wiggins to search for the deceased's name on a website maintained by the Mormon church that contains Florida burial records of the period.
Wiggins found more than 500 names of black Miamians -- many of Bahamian extraction, and many residents of Overtown, the city's original black district -- who were listed as buried in a ``colored'' or blacks-only cemetery in Lemon City between 1911 and 1935. Henry Flagler recruited Bahamian workers to build his railroad and many of the city's earliest buildings. Many of those workers settled in Overtown.
What remains unknown is how many of those originally buried there remain in the cemetery. Archaeologist Bob Carr, hired by the developers to study the site, says the remains of some 15 to 20 individuals were found in the excavated dirt piles and ground radar analysis shows there to be more grave sites, though possibly not enough to hold hundreds of bodies.
PARTIALLY BUILT ON
But the site was partially built on at least twice previously, disturbing or eradicating at least some graves and some bodies may have long ago been moved, Carr said. Other portions are largely undisturbed, although the entire property is covered by a couple of inches of construction fill.
It may take two more months to develop an estimate of the number of surviving graves, Carr said.
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--Sir Walter Scott
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