At a heated commission meeting in April, Deerfield Beach city commissioners narrowly approved a townhouse development on the site of a former cemetery.
This three-acre plot of land was not just any cemetery. During segregation, it was the only place in Deerfield Beach where the black community was allowed to bury its dead.
“Basically, the cemetery represents all the Jim Crow laws,” says Laura Lucas, a historian studying Deerfield Beach’s black history. Lucas is working on preserving the oral history of the city’s black community, and has authored a book of collected oral histories from the generation before her — a generation that was alive during the time the site was an active burial ground; many say they had family members buried there.
These oral histories are the main source of information about the cemetery, since there are no official city records. That's because the site was never an official city-managed cemetery, but rather private property whose owner allowed the burials to happen on his land.
Burials on the site stopped around eighty years ago, and the land has changed hands a few times. In 1974, the landowner took a drastic step and bulldozed the site, destroying all existing headstones and making it impossible to officially identification who is buried there.
Now, the current property owner has suspended plans to build on a section of land he's owned since the 1980s -- land that's been the subject of dispute since then. A new plan would involve the city and the owner working together to have the state purchase the land. After that, the state could in turn donate the land to the city.
PEOPLE BELIEVED TO HAVE BEEN BURIED AT THE SITE
The only known source of written information is a list of 300 names compiled by Lucas. She went through state records and took down the name of every black resident of the city who died during the time when people were buried there. According to Lucas, this site was “the only logical place they could’ve been buried,” since all other cemeteries were closed to them.
The list includes a former slave, a Native American, and even a black military veteran who fought in the Civil War.
None of these names can be officially confirmed.
STUDIES FOUND NO REMAINS
Two archaeological studies done over the past few decades found no evidence of human remains on the site. The first study was commissioned in 1986 by Rob Kassab, the current property owner, and its negative result is what prompted him to purchase the site in the first place. He has attempted to develop the site multiple times over the past few decades, but resistance from the community halted the plans every time.
After facing pressure from residents, the city commissioned a second study of the site in 2005, part of which Kassab paid for. The claim that no bodies remain on the site was cited at the commission meeting at which the decision was made to approve building.
The cemetery has grown from being a site of historical importance for Deerfield Beach’s black community into an issue for many city residents. At the commission meeting in April, residents both black and white voiced their concern that Deerfield was covering up important city history.
Velmina Williams-Hamilton says her grandmother and cousins are buried on the site. She spoke at the April commission meeting, and said many people there were upset about the prospect of development.
“There were white people concerned because they felt that was a sacred place and they wouldn’t want something built on top of their relatives even if they’re not there anymore,” Williams-Hamilton said. She believes the site should become a memorial park.
ONE LAST STUDY
After development was approved by the city in April, Kassab commissioned one final archaeological study in an effort to appease the community.
Dwayne Dickerson, a legal representative for Kassab, calls this “a great example of Mr. Kassab’s cooperation throughout the years.” Dickerson says Kassab and his team have gone through great lengths to work with the community and address their concerns.
When the study began this time, it used powerful technology that wasn’t readily available earlier. On two separate occasions this summer, human remains were found.
Dickerson says because of that, the focus has now shifted away from building on the site. Now, he says, the goal is to get the state to purchase the land through a special fund for situations like these.
He hopes that if that goes through, the land could be either leased or donated to the city of Deerfield Beach. If that happens, he says, it could well become a memorial park.