Looking for the Lost and Forgotten in Hillsborough County
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The All People’s Cemetery in Hillsborough County as seen from 22nd street

 

If you walked by the Hillsborough County All People’s Cemetery today, you may think that no one has been buried in the large, gated green space. Look a little bit closer, and you might notice numbered stones cemented together to make the entrance gate walls. These stones, once placed across the cemetery, used to serve as grave markers for the people laid to rest here. This place was home to those whose circumstances did not provide many options in death. These men, women, and children were mostly poor and their graves were marked with simple numbered stones meant to correspond to records of their names. These records were unfortunately lost in a fire and over time headstones of the no less than 800 people buried here were moved, broken, or covered over with soil, leaving these final resting places unmarked and forgotten.

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View of the All People’s Cemetery entrance gate walls. Numbered cement stones that once served as grave markers were used to create these walls.

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Many of the grave markers were moved or covered up over time. Recent work has relocated some but many markers remain lost or misplaced.

For years the All People’s Cemetery remained in this dilapidated state, until 2009 when Hillsborough County asked a number of University of South Florida (USF) professors to come out to investigate the area. Through their work, a number of buried grave markers were gently uncovered and the road to restoring this piece of Tampa history began.

In more recent years, local historian Ray Reed and other volunteers with the Northeast Seminole Heights Neighborhood Watch (Grid 45) started researching the cemetery. They combed through countless records at local funeral homes to gather information on the people buried at the cemetery. This extensive research resulted in a database of the deceased and a map of their expected grave locations. Thanks to this effort, we now know that numerous graves belong to babies under a year old and that many of their grave markers were used in the walls flanking the entrance gate.

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Local historian Ray Reed and other volunteers have done extensive archival research to compile a history of the cemetery. This research has also allowed Reed to create a map of possible grave locations, complete with names of some of the deceased.

Though Reed and his colleagues’ archival research has provided insight into many forgotten aspects of the All People’s Cemetery, the group knew that research could only take them so far. They obtained Hillsborough County support and have since recovered a number of lost burial markers at the cemetery. However, there is only so much gentle field work that can be done to uncover the markers without being disrespectful and disturbing the graves. This led Reed to contact University of South Florida (USF) historians and archaeologists for help. Technological advances in archaeological methods now allow for investigation without ever disturbing the ground. USF Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn agreed to assist Reed and his group. Dr. Pluckhahn suggested that Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Gradiometer surveys may be able to identify the number and locations of graves across the cemetery without having to dig.

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The first step of doing a GPR or Gradiometer survey is laying out a grid over the area you want to test. Here, Jeff Moates assists USF graduate students as they lay out meter measuring tapes to make grids at the All People’s Cemetery.

In September of last year, Pluckhahn and a few USF Anthropology graduate students went out to the cemetery to do the first survey with the GPR and Gradiometer. They laid out a 20 x 15 meter grid along the eastern edge of the cemetery within which they would use both the GPR and gradiometer. This area of the cemetery was a great place for Dr. Pluckhahn to start out the survey because it contains two rows of concrete markers and would provide a good baseline of what known and unknown graves would look like in the GPR and gradiometer results. From the results of this first survey (an image of the results can be seen below), Dr. Pluckhahn discovered not only what he believes is a buried pipe, but more interestingly the potential for three more rows of unmarked graves to the west of the two marked rows within his grid. The results also show that the anomalies (potential graves) are shifted more north than the concrete markers that are meant to mark grave locations.

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GPR detects changes in density and soil compaction beneath the ground surface that might have been caused by human activities. This means that it can detect dense objects underground such as coffins. GPR works by emitting electromagnetic waves into the ground, and is completely non-destructive. When a wave hits something like a buried object or change in soil, it bounces back to the receiving antennae on the GPR unit and is recorded by an onboard computer. Here, Dr. Pluckhahn and his graduate students set up and run the GPR within a grid at the cemetery.

 

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These are the results from Dr. Pluckhahn’s first GPR and Gradiometer survey at the All People’s Cemetery in September of this year. These images are showing the cemetery as seen from above looking down toward the ground. The lighter color areas in each GPR image are “anomalies”, or stuff that is denser than the surrounding soil.

On October 8th, I got the chance to observe Dr. Pluckhahn, Dr. Diane Wallman (Assistant Professor in the USF Department of Anthropology), USF graduate students, and fellow FPANers Director Jeff Moates and Brittany Yabczanka Vojnovic as they continued their survey of the cemetery. They set up three more grids, one just north of the grid from the first survey date and two in the northern half of the cemetery just to the north of the old shell path that ran through the center. On top of running the GPR and Gradiometer, the group also used a probe in meter increments in the area of the original grid. Probing with a thin metal rod helps to ground truth what was found in the first GPR and Gradiometer survey without being overtly destructive to the landscape. If the ground probe hits something in the ground, a flag is placed in the ground to mark the spot.

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Gradiometer uses magnetism to detect metal in the ground. Working in a cemetery, a gradiometer can help archaeologists detect metal coffin pieces and nails or clothing elements like belt buckles or metal snaps or buttons. Dr. Pluckhahn and his students calibrate the Gradiometer and walk the same grid from the GPR survey.

The results of this second survey are still being processed but will definitely provide useful information about the All People’s Cemetery. It will be interesting to see how the non-destructive survey results match up with what Ray Reed and his group have uncovered in historical records. This project is attempting to answer a number of as yet unanswered questions. How many people were buried here? Where are their graves located? Who were they? As this project continues the collaboration between Hillsborough County, local historians, and USF faculty and students will hopefully answer some of these questions and bring recognition back to this place where the lost and forgotten rest.

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