MIAMI — Preservationists this week won the first round of their fight to preserve what some people believe is a historic black cemetery on the site of an affordable-housing development that is under construction.
Miami’s Historic Environmental Preservation Board decided unanimously on Tuesday to recommend that the site be preserved as a memorial park. This preliminary approval, however, does not mean that the state of Florida will officially deem the site historic, which would further protect it from development.
Still, the vote was a victory for the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation, the newly formed group that is fighting to preserve the site as a burial ground.
For now, the cemetery is protected by a resolution, but not by law.
The official historical preservation of the cemetery would, by law, protect it from being physically altered, have anything built on top of it, or be desecrated.
Long-time community activist and historian Enid Pinkney entered the Miami City Commission chambers for the meeting on Tuesday with the sole purpose of ensuring the historical preservation of the site, which she described as a memorial of the Jim Crow era in predominantly black communities in Miami.
In an effort to seek non-profit status and obtain resources and funding to further their cause, the African-American committee for the Dade Heritage Trust, of which Pinkney serves as chair, incorporated itself to form the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation.
Pinkney provided an update on a new discovery she made with the help of local historian Larry Wiggs.
After conducting a lineage records search on the cemetery, Wiggs discovered 523 names of African Americans and Bahamians who were buried there between 1915 and 1925.
“You encouraged us to go out there and starting working and for me, this has been an experience,” Pinkney said. “As people began to call me to see if their loved ones were buried there, I found out that my grandfather was buried there and it was amazing to me. This has enlightened me about myself and why we need to give respect to this site. The spirits of the people who were buried here are coming forth and I cannot support a construction over this site.”
Fully equipped with a revised copy of the Lemon City Report that was originally presented to the preservation board in July, members of Pinkney’s community corporation were also armed with updated archaeological studies and a copy of Section 23 of the City of Miami Code that describes the criteria for site preservation through city ordinance.
Pinkney presented a strong argument as to why the Lemon City cemetery should be deemed a historical site.
In April, construction workers contracted through Carlisle Development Group and Biscayne Housing Group discovered human remains and pieces of caskets in the development process of the Village Carver residential towers.
After an outpouring of community requests seeking preservation of the site, Pinkney led an effort to further examine the site for additional remains and ensure their proper preservation.
Pinkney also examined the report findings by archaeologist Bob Carr to investigate the site after the remains were found, and learned that the community had a legitimate claim to the historical designation.
Representatives from both development companies and their attorney, N. Patrick Range, also presented their case to the board on Tuesday, in reference to the accommodations that they have made to respect the significance of the site and assist in the investigation.
According to Range, the developer not only agreed to memorialize graves, but also to adjust the site plans so that no building would be constructed on the cemetery, which is at Northwest 71st street and 4th Avenue, near Interstate 95.
Range further stated that the developer has been working diligently with the Lemon City corporation and community residents to get input on how to work through the process in a fair and respectful manner.
“We have come to an agreement about the site that will achieve all of our goals,” Range said. “We stand here as a community and our desire is to press forward in terms of affordable housing opportunities for a community that is so desperately in need of it.”
Range further stated that although his client had already obtained federal funding opportunities and building permits, and had begun laying down foundation for the second phase, the development was immediately halted to ensure the proper preservation of the human remains.
According to Range, the developer incurred a cost of approximately $1 million for unforeseen expenses such as a redesign of the original housing site plan, radar and archaeological studies.
Range personally sought out the services of his family’s widely respected business, Range Funeral Home, to ensure the proper handling of the remains. He further expressed to the board his concern that with the previous delays and those that may occur in the future as a result of the site investigation, his client runs the risk of losing government subsidies by not meeting certain permitting deadlines.
Range further stated that the Village Carver development, which is slated to bring 309 affordable units to elderly residents and families, was completely restructured to build around the cemetery, in addition to adding private parking and green space.
“Since day one we’ve tried to do what we could to memorialize the site,’’ Range said.
“We just want to ensure that through this process we do not lose out $25 million worth of funding by the state of Florida. It is not in our interest to interrupt graves that are already there.”
In an effort to ease the concerns of Range and his clients, the preservation board agreed to allow city attorneys and departments to work along with the Village Carver project to ensure that developers are able to meet deadlines that are required to keep their funding.
“We have a unique opportunity to show Miami and the nation that together, this process can work,” said preservation board member Timothy Barber, who also works with the Black Archives. “The issue of moving forward with the designation shouldn’t hinder you financially. We can make concessions and turn this site into a major landmark.”
Photo: Enid Pinkney