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USF researchers locate 45 unmarked burial sites in Hillsborough County

After two years of research, USF forensic anthropologists presented their findings to Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 16. ORACLE PHOTO/ALEXANDRA URBAN

After identifying the locations of 45 unmarked cemeteries and burial grounds on Hillsborough County properties, USF forensic anthropologists will place their findings in the USF Anthropology department’s Waterman Gallery toward the end of April.

The research team, led by forensic anthropologist and Executive Director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science Erin Kimmerle, was commissioned by the Hillsborough County Board on Jan. 23, 2020 to uncover the sociocultural history of the county’s unmarked cemeteries by their locations on current county-owned property.

Along with Kimmerle, the team was comprised of Co-Director of the Digital Heritage and Humanities Center in the USF Florida Libraries Lori Collins, USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory Kelsee Hentschel-Fey, USF Libraries Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager Benjamin Mittler and about seven graduate students.

The team presented the findings from their two-year study to the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 16.

Kimmerle said researching burial practices on a countywide scale is still relatively uncommon, making it a groundbreaking project.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time a project like this has really been conducted … countywide or at a large geographical area, and researched the history of land use and historical records to try and put together a comprehensive picture of burial practices and burial locations,” she said.

Ten cemeteries were found in communities that no longer existed or were annexed into the surrounding Tampa area. There were also 13 sites assumed to have originated from family homesteads or expanded burial grounds.

Some sites were located on the Lewis Family Cemetery in Lithia and the 1916 Platt Map Cemetery near Carney Memorial in Valrico. Platt maps, according to Collins, are maps showing the divisions of land, often including place names, ownership, trails, vegetation and cemeteries.

Other burial grounds were found on properties owned by the Hillsborough County School Board, City of Tampa or Aviation Authority. Some were also on private property or had unknown property ownership.

While Kimmerle’s team wanted to identify unmarked graves for the Hillsborough County Board to begin preserving and memorializing them, she said they also wanted to uncover the historical context of their existence and how they relate to Florida currently.

“[Our team wanted to] explain what these sites are, and how it is that they’re not known,” Kimmerle said. “Or if they were known, what’s the history, and how does that shape and affect this region? What do these sites consist of? What does this tell us about our history? So that’s the bigger scope.”

The research was divided into two phases, involving historical research, GIS application development, creating a digital archive at USF Libraries and field verification using GPS and remote sensing technologies to corroborate results, according to Kimmerle.

Florida’s history, such as that of immigration, was also highlighted in the project, according to Kimmerle.

Dating around 1900, populations of primarily Cuban, Spanish and Italian people migrated to Florida to participate in Florida’s growing cigar industry. Following their arrival, Kimmerle said they took part in mutual aid societies for support and community resources.

She said some of these resources were burial sites and headstones for each community.

However, for Florida’s Cuban populations, American segregation of the 20th century created racial divisions within their heritage. These divisions began to be reflected in their cemeteries.

“As [cemeteries] filled up, they expanded and had multiple locations subsequently. And one thing you see is, for example, with Cubans during segregation, you would have white Cubans and Black Cubans who become categorized racially, based on their skin color,” Kimmerle said.

“That would affect all aspects of their life. We’re looking at how it’s reflected in burial. But that’s just one piece of it.”

The other piece of the research is how it is relevant today. The discovery of these burial sites can be a helpful resource to Hillsborough County and surrounding communities, according to Kimmerle.

The research will serve as a source of knowledge on how space was used for burials, she said. From an anthropology standpoint, the graves can show a lot about how different ethnic communities valued burial grounds and memorialized these locations as sacred spaces.

The identification of these spaces would inform descendants of those buried in these locations of their existence, according to Kimmerle.

“In some cases, there are direct living descendants who may be linked to people who are buried there,” she said. “And as such, they’re the next of kin and have rights of access, and so on.”

Another benefit of this research is that it will allow the community to recognize their existence so that they would no longer be disturbed by construction and urban development.

The project will also make Hillsborough County landowners aware of the cemeteries’ locations, in case they may be located on their property.

“Ultimately, it’s up to those individual property owners to decide what, if anything, is the next step. But it’s knowledge that we came across through the scope of this work,” Kimmerle said. “Right now, we want to share it with individuals who may be directly affected and the broader community.”

Kimmerle and her team are currently planning how they will share their findings with the public.

Currently, the research team is working to produce an open-access digital archive through USF Libraries. In the archive, users can view the project’s associated materials and maps. Kimmerle said they are still in the process of creating it, so it is not ready to be released on the platform yet.

Not only does she hope to share the findings, but Kimmerle also wants the community to experience the cultural history of the burial sites and appreciate their part in its legacy.

“Cemeteries and burial practices are a reflection of our society,” she said.

“So when you think about it that way, and look back over 200 years of history, you see through the cemeteries how this region develops its history, and so much more than just individual burials. That’s what we’re excited about sharing.”