FORT LAUDERDALE — The Florida Department of Transportation has been surveying the grounds of Broward County’s historic Woodlawn Cemetery for human remains. Searches with dogs reportedly took place Saturday, April 11 and Sunday, April 12, as well as a survey of the property with a ground penetration radar (GPR) Saturday, April 18 at the Fort Lauderdale cemetery.
The Woodlawn Cemetery was established in the 1920s during segregation because blacks were not allowed to bury their loved ones in the main cemeteries. Reportedly, Raleigh P. Moore, publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Colored Bulletin, the city’s first black newspaper, was buried there. Also, prominent religious leader Rev. Joseph Smith and his wife, who was the first black female to vote in Broward County, we’re both buried at the cemetery as well, according to longtime resident Johnny Alexander whose property borders a portion of the cemetery site.
Alexander said he thinks the Department of Transportation knew graves and human remains were there when construction on the highway was originally done. “We’re going to have to do something because we know that there are bodies in the right-of-way that they own,” he said. “When they originally started 95 (Interstate), they made a jog in the fence. So they knew at that time that there were graves there. The only reason they made the jog at the fence was to avoid graves.”
Allegedly, the FDOT right-of-way runs through the area of the cemetery where many poor and/or unknown individuals, mostly blacks, were buried called the “Paupers” section. A number of bodies could possibly be buried underneath the highway, which was constructed in the 1970s, but an exact number is not known.
FDOT spokesperson Barbara Kelleher said that in conjunction with its I-95 Express Lane project, a development study was done. She said as a result of that study, a cultural resource committee was formed that included members of families who’s loved ones had been buried at the cemetery, as well as state and local historians, leaders from the African-American community and the Florida Department of Transportation. Kelleher said the group has met several times to avoid any further impact on the Woodlawn Cemetery but also to get an idea if there are any remains within the state right-of-way. “The purpose of the work that we’re doing in that area is to avoid any further impact,” she said. “We’re not going into the cemetery itself.”
An outreach committee meeting for the Woodland Cemetery will be held next month to discuss the results of the ground investigation, according to a letter sent by FDOT project manager Lynn Kelley to a cultural resource committee member.
The cemetery is located at 1936 NW 9th Street, in Fort Lauderdale and is the resting place of many pioneering African Americans, according to the website, www.browardcemeteries.com.
The cemetery was badly deteriorated by the 1990s when it was acquired by the city of Fort Lauderdale to preserve its heritage and historic importance, according to information on the site.
Walter “Mickey” Hinton said he thinks it is important to preserve the cemetery because of its historic significance. “A lot of black pioneers that (really made things happen) for the city of Fort Lauderdale ‑‑‑are buried there,” he said. “Anybody could have been buried there. They didn’t care how much money you had.”
Hinton, 76, said many of his relatives and extended family are buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery. He said he thinks the human remains search dogs found about 10 hot spots within the cemetery and six outside of the fence. Kelleher said no official results have been submitted yet but a cultural resource committee meeting will be held sometime in May to discuss the findings.
She said the FDOT right-of-way is from the fence line of the cemetery out towards the interstate and into the interstate property. “That’s why we have conducted some non-ground disturbing work in order to determine if there are any human remains in the DOT right-of-way,” Kelleher said. “A couple of weekends ago, we used human remains detecting dogs and then this past weekend, we used ground penetration radar in order to detect if there were any human remains in the DOT right-of-way itself.”
Kelleher said the desire is to not do any further disruption or impact to the cemetery. “The purpose of this research is so that we can get an idea of what’s there, so that we can make future plans that would not impact those (areas),” she said.
Kelleher said it is her understanding that the cemetery is eligible for a listing on the national registry of historic places but she does not know if it has been designated as a historic site at a state office. “We are obviously interested in working with the community to come up with a solution for the long-term on how to handle that particular area, so that we hopefully don’t do any further disruption,” she said.