MIAMI (AP) — When Enid Pinkney was a girl in the 1940s, her grandmother would tell her stories about a black cemetery nestled in the northwest corner of Miami in an area once called Lemon City.
Pinkney never saw any headstones or tombs on the former farm land, which gradually became surrounded by small homes, car lots and industrial warehouses starting in the 1950s and 1960s.
But Pinkney's grandmother was apparently right. The bones of at least 11 people – and possibly dozens more – were recently discovered during construction of an affordable housing project. A local historian says the site was probably a cemetery for settlers from the Bahamas who came to South Florida in the early 1900s to tend to wealthy whites and to help build Florida's most cosmopolitan city.
Now Pinkney, a 78-year-old activist and civic historian, is among those who want construction halted and the site designated as historic.
“Even though the people are dead, they are speaking to us,” said Pinkney, who went before the city's Historic Preservation Board earlier this month to discuss the discovery. “Their spirits are saying, we were here. We laid the foundation for this community and we are being disrespected.”
The scattered bones were first discovered in April. Someone called Pinkney about the find and she started to ask around in the black community to see what people remembered.
Pinkney approached Teresita DeVeaux, a 100-year-old woman who was born in the Bahamas and came to Miami as a child. DeVeaux remembered that a young man named Theophilus Clark was buried there. Pinkney mentioned this detail to a reporter from The Miami Herald – and when a story with Clark's name was published, a local historian named Larry Wiggins took note.
Wiggins said he plugged Clark's name into a genealogy Web site, and discovered that the man was buried in 1926 at a place called the Lemon City Cemetery.
There is no known cemetery in the area by that name, so Wiggins ran a genealogy records search using the keywords “Lemon City Cemetery.'' A total of 523 names came up, all of black people, many from the Bahamas or infants of Bahamian settlers. The majority were buried between 1915 and 1925, right around the time when millionaires began developing Miami Beach.
But if this was a named cemetery, why wasn't it on any city maps? And why didn't anyone remember it or fight for preservation when the land was developed over the years?
“It's so mystifying,” said Paul George, historian for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
He has an idea of what happened, however. It's likely that the former pastureland was owned by a private citizen and used as a black cemetery. Because it served the poor and marginalized immigrants, the city never paid much attention. Then people forgot about it as a number of things changed the surroundings: whites driving blacks out of Lemon City in early decades of the century, the nearby placement of the I-95 highway, a rapidly changing ethnic makeup of the area, which is now heavily populated with Haitian immigrants.
“We've obliterated our history, especially for the unempowered,” said George. “We don't have a great reverence for our past. Things are forgotten very quickly.”
Another unanswered question surrounds the status of the housing development on the property. The developer was going to build three towers for affordable and senior housing on the site. One of the towers is almost finished; work has stopped on the other two.
Patrick Range Jr., an attorney and spokesman for the developer, said the project is in limbo while more archaeological work is done.
“We're trying to come up with a solution that is both respectful and appropriate,” said Range, who is the son of Athalie Range, one of Miami’s well-known black leaders.
Range said that the developer has finished an extensive radar scan of the property; he said there are a few areas where there are definitely objects underground. The developer will hire archaeologists to hand-dig those areas in the coming weeks to find out what's in the soil.
“We certainly do intend to bring the project to fruition,” he said. “What it will look like at the end stage, I don't think we're ready to say.”
But Pinkney and other black community leaders insist that the people that lay under the ground be remembered. City officials have speculated that there may be little they can do in the way of historic designation because there are no historic structures on the site and that no one of historical note is buried there. State rules say that construction on former cemeteries is acceptable if remains are appropriately moved.
In the meantime, Miami’s Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously earlier this month to approve “in principle” that at least part of the property be kept undeveloped as a memorial park. But the resolution is not binding by law.
“These are the people who helped to make Miami what it is. They laid the foundation for what we have. They were pioneers,” said Pinkney. “This is so typical of what happens to black people. It's like you get eliminated, discounted, disrespected and when something like this happens, it's almost like it's your fault that the city doesn't have a map to prove you existed.”