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Dogs Search For Lost African American Cemetery On MacDill Air Force Base

Woman with search dog stands, speaking into microphones.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Susan Goodhope stands with Shiraz, one of the cadaver dogs she handles, as she explains how the search team will work to find an African American cemetery that may be located on MacDill Air Force Base.

Cadaver dogs and archaeologists began searching Tuesday for a lost cemetery that may be located in an area of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

It's the latest effort to find an unmarked, mainly African American burial ground, a number of which have been discovered recently throughout Florida. 

A group of specially-trained dogs, including an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois named Shiraz, will spend the week searching for the scent of decaying human remains.

Historians suspect the base is home to the Port Tampa Cemetery for African Americans, where burials date back to the early 1900's. But dog handler Susan Goodhope said that's not too old for Shiraz.

"She found the last digit of a toe bone about three-and-a-half feet down in an oyster shell midden that was radiocarbon-dated to 670 A.D. in the Florida Panhandle,” she said.

This is also not the first cemetery Shiraz has searched for - she recently helped locate unmarked graves on a golf course in Tallahassee.

Shiraz the cadaver dog.
Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Shiraz, 11, is one of four cadaver dogs that are searching an area of MacDill Air Force Base for the scent of human remains. That could indicate there is indeed a cemetery on the property.

“Dogs' ability to smell is incredible,” said Goodhope. “When you come home, somebody’s fixing spaghetti, you say, ‘Oh we’re having spaghetti for dinner.’ The dogs, however, say ‘There’s tomatoes, there’s onions, there’s celery – too much garlic again’…so they look at each little piece that makes it up. So the dogs will be out there looking for this mixture of volatile gases that decaying bodies give off.”

READ MORE: See WUSF's coverage of Tampa's "lost cemeteries"

Still, the dogs have their work cut out for them. The heat makes it harder for them to work.

And many of the graves could hold the remains of stillborn babies, which New South Associates archaeologist Paige Dobbins said poses a challenge in the search area's wooded environment.

"Infant remains are harder to find mostly because they decompose a lot faster, and especially when you deal with pine trees and sand, you're dealing with a lot of dryness and acidity, so the reality is they may be more decomposed than we can really identify,” she said.

A restricted sign tells passersby not to enter the wooded area of MacDill Air Force Base where a cemetery could be located.
Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A 5-acre wooded area of MacDill Air Force Base is where historians think the cemetery could be located. Upon learning graves could be on the base, officials put up signs blocking off the area to all unauthorized personnel. Records indicate the area has been relatively untouched throughout base history.

That's why multiple methods will be used to determine if there's a cemetery. Dobbins explained how her agency's work this week will supplement that of the historians who have assembled archival data about the area.

"Deed records indicate there was something there, a person remembers seeing a grave marker, we find stones out there that look like they could be grave markers, the dogs indicate it nearby, and that will give us that high-probability area that we can say 'This is your money spot,’” she said.

Dobbins added that the work is important for many more people than the families of those who may be buried in the cemetery.

“Being able to give these roots back to the African American community in this area and being able to say this area cares about your history and your history is meaningful and is out there, being able to connect people to their ancestors,” she said.

Archaeologist Paige Dobbins
Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Archaeologist Paige Dobbins talks about the need to avoid "Western, white" misconceptions about what a cemetery looks like when searching for a historic African American burial site.

In the search for a cemetery, Dobbins is looking for evidence that reflects an African American community of the time period.

She talked about why it’s important to avoid “Western, white” conceptions about what a cemetery looks like.

“And that is marble tombstones, sectioned-out plots, etc.,” she said. “So when you get into these lowland African American cemeteries, a lot of times they are decorated with broken plates, drinking vessels and shells, and they’re these beautifully meaningful items, but if you’re coming into it thinking that you’re going to find a traditional white cemetery you might miss the entirety of it, which is why we bring specialists out here specifically looking for those materials.”

The initial ground survey will last about a week. Then experts will scan the area with ground-penetrating radar next week.  Dobbins said they hope to start writing up a report with results by the end of the month or early March.

If graves are found, one thing that may help the situation is that there is little to no activity on the five acres or so of woodland on the base that have been blocked off to unauthorized personnel since MacDill learned from the Tampa Bay History Center that a cemetery could be there.

Lt. Brandon Hanner, spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, said records indicate the land has been relatively untouched throughout MacDill's history.

"Just because of the lay of the land, it being a wetland, it’s pretty much unusable from a building perspective, the roads go around it, the pipelines go around it,” he said.

Hanner added that with MacDill being a military base, there still could be some unique challenges as to what the next steps are if a cemetery is found. He said leadership will work closely with the community to determine how to move forward in the most respectful way possible.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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