Residents and Developer Fight Over Historic Black Cemetery, but Where Are the Bodies?
Theo Times: “These people who were laid to rest were disrespected time after time.”
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
In the 1950s, the only way for Beatrice Miller to get home from her after-school job picking peppers at her father's farm was to cut through the cemetery — when it was getting dark. For the teenage girl, few things were more frightening.
"I ran so fast my feet never touched the ground," chuckles Miller, now 78, sitting in front of her cheery, light-green home less than a mile from the old cemetery. "I was so scared I just ran as fast as I could until I was out of there."
Miller's fear was based on community knowledge that the so-called Old Colored Cemetery had been the final resting place for African-Americans of her grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation. Although it was already defunct and overgrown by the time she was a girl, wooden crosses and simple headstones still marked the graves. Today the site — at SE Fourth Street and SE Second Avenue in Deerfield Beach — is a grassy lot with a few scattered trees.
But now Boca Raton property owner Rob Kassab wants to build 69 townhouses on the land, which he bought in 1986 for $240,000. At least twice in the past four decades, plans have been floated to develop the site, and twice, outrage from the black community has stymied those plans. But this time, Kassab hopes to break ground.
The city commission is set to vote on Kassab's development plan April 7. The developer has the support of Mayor Jean Robb, who says residents should be happy to have more homes and thus more people contributing to the tax rolls. But both blacks and whites who live nearby say it's immoral to build on top of a former cemetery. Kassab says they shouldn't worry, because two studies have shown there are no longer any bodies on the site. Yet residents who have lived in Deerfield Beach all of their lives — some who are third and fourth generation — don't buy it.
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"The studies they've done don't hold a bucket of water to the people who live in this community," says Theo Times, a 30-year-old funeral director who runs Rahming-Poitier Funeral Directors, a family business for three generations. Local families "know the cemetery has had bodies for a long time, and then the city is just going to suddenly tell them that's not true?"
In the late 1800s, migrant workers, many of them black, arrived in the Broward County area to work on the Florida East Coast Railway, according to a 2005 study done by archaeologist Bob Carr, who runs his own company. The workers and their descendants went on to make their livings as farmers, tradesmen, and domestic workers for wealthy white families. But those who died between 1890 and 1941, when a new graveyard was built, were forbidden by the white-run local governments from being buried in the city's official cemeteries, which were reserved for whites. According to Carr's 2005 study, in 1896 a black church worked out a deal with a farmer to bury black residents on his property. For the next 40 years, bodies would be laid to rest there.
Times says his uncle Lohman Rahming, also a mortician, shared stories of playing in the cemetery as a kid. He'd step into shallow graves, and his foot would break through the weak pine coffins that were used during those early burials.
But the land has always remained in private hands, and records are hard to pin down. If the church kept any burial records, they were destroyed when the church burned down in the early '50s. In 1941, the Work Projects Administration's Veterans' Graves Registration Project noted the site as a cemetery, suggesting military veterans were buried there. Carr's 2005 study put the number of bodies at 34, but one Deerfield historian has compiled a list that puts that number closer to 300.
Carr's 2005 study mentions that in 1966 the McLaughlin Engineering Company of Boca Raton "probed" the land to search for graves. Despite noting there were wooden crosses and headstones, that survey concluded there was "no evidence of any graves." The McLaughlin Company still exists, but a company rep says they have no record of any such study and don't know why it might have been conducted or who commissioned it.
Boca Raton property owner Rob Kassab wants to build 69 townhouses on the land he bought in 1986.
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
In 1974, then-owner Joseph Grosso decided to clear the land with a bulldozer, destroying the grave markers. Community members recall headstones being strewn in the street, some even used to prop up fire hydrants.
"There's a saying that there's no dignity in death, and in this situation, there is no dignity because these people who were laid to rest were disrespected time after time," Times says.
A well-known resident, Ernest Price, led a public outcry and stalled further development, according to Times. Price's wife Izola had been buried in the cemetery. He had her body moved to the nearby Pineview Cemetery the same year Grosso bulldozed the land. It's the only disinterment noted in city records.
"By the end of 1974, various clearing and fill activities had apparently effaced all superficial indications of the location of any possible remaining graves on the subject parcel," the 2005 Carr study reads.
Ironically, the fact that Price moved his wife's grave to prevent her dishonor has fueled rumors that the rest of the bodies were also relocated. Mayor Robb said at a February city commission meeting that her staff has proof that 18 bodies were moved, but when New Times requested copies of any documentation, city spokesperson Rebecca Medina responded that she would not comment on any "open and active development applications."
In January 1986, Kassab considered buying the land and commissioned a study to determine whether it contained bodies. Using digging tests and a high-tech metal detector that should have discovered coffin nails and jewelry, Florida Atlantic University archaeologists Yasar Iscan and Gerald Kennedy concluded there were no human remains on the site. Believing he'd be able to develop it, Kassab purchased the land through his trust for $238,000.
In 2004, Kassab considered building a housing project and volunteered to partially pay for a new study to be conducted. He and the city split the cost and hired Carr. Christopher Eck, then the Broward County preservation officer, who now works as a federal preservation officer, was brought on to scour funeral records and found names of 34 people purported to have been buried on the land, though Carr's report does not specify Eck's source for those names. Eck did not return calls from New Times. Carr's team dug holes and used electromagnetic imaging to look for soil disturbance that would indicate grave locations.
"A total of 1130 feet of trenches, averaging three feet in width and five feet in depth, were excavated," the study says. "The test holes and trenching uncovered only twentieth century historic refuse. No features associated with human gravesites or human remains were found."
Kassab says the 34 bodies must have been moved by family members to other cemeteries. Residents balk at that assertion — and insist more than 34 bodies are still buried there.
Deerfield Beach resident Laura Lucas, who has written three books about the city's history, obtained death records from FamilySearch.org, a website run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is reputed for keeping careful genealogical records.
She looked at deaths in the city between 1920 and 1939 and isolated the black people. If the burial place was listed as "Deerfield" or "Deerfield Beach," she concluded they must have been laid to rest in the "Old Colored Cemetery" because that was the only place black people could have been buried. Her list is 40-plus pages and includes about 300 names.
Sitting in his office at Rahming-Poitier Funeral Directors, Theo Times pulls out Lucas' list.
"The city has a record of only one person being moved," he says. "So where are all these people?"
Lucas believes that at least one Seminole Indian — a 35-year-old woman named Tommie Hand Osceola — was buried in Deerfield on July 2, 1934. The possibility of Native Americans being buried on the site could draw more attention to the importance of the cemetery, but Gary Bittner, a spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe, says it would have been extremely rare for a Seminole to have been buried in a black cemetery.
Lucas' list has been passed around by city residents, who believe the names it contains are their ancestors'. Many on the list were born in the Bahamas, which has a strong familial connection to Deerfield Beach.
"My family came from the Bahamas, just like a lot of people here in Deerfield," says Commissioner Gloria Battle, who opposes any development of the cemetery site.
As Beatrice Miller thumbs through the list, she can also point out family. "All the Millers are my kin," she says.
The city has refused to comment on the list.
Rob Kassab doesn't want to appear coldhearted. On March 26, he called a community meeting at the Woman's Club of Deerfield Beach to promote his project. Speaking for the developer, attorney Dwayne Dickerson explained the thoroughness of the studies and the positive impact that 69 townhouses would have on the city.
But residents fired back: "If we build on that land and one body is found, we should all be castrated," lamented Joan Maurice, a Deerfield Beach resident for 25 years.
"There were bodies in that cemetery, but now you're saying they've all just disappeared?" said Bernie Parness, a 78-year-old New Yorker who has lived here for 25 years.
A few people favored development, though. "Why, all of a sudden, did people get so fired up about the cemetery?" a mustached white man asked. "If it were my loved ones there, I would have made sure it was maintained."
The state Division of Historical Resources archaeologist Daniel Seinfeld points out that under Florida Statute 872.05, unmarked burials are protected and include "any burial mound or earthen or shell monument, where human skeletal remains or associated burial artifacts are discovered or believed to exist on the basis of archaeological or historical evidence." It's possible that even without actual remains on the site, the official records of burials and the community memory of the cemetery could be enough to protect the land.
Organizers say they'll look at getting a lawyer involved if the commission approves the project.
For Times, the young funeral director hopes the five members of the commission vote to give the cemetery the respect it was never before afforded.
"Just like black lives matter, black deaths matter," Times says.