Miami-Dade County

Mystery graveyard may be deemed historic

Miami's historic preservation board is expected to vote Tuesday on whether or not to give historic site designation to an unmarked South Florida cemetery, located in an area of Miami once called Lemon City.

The cemetery site was first discovered in April at NW 71st Street and 4th Avenue by construction workers who unearthed human bones. The bones of at least 11 people, and possibly dozens more, were discovered during construction of an affordable-housing project.

Developers of the affordable-housing project are already reworking future construction plans in order to avoid the cemetery.

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.

Preservationists want the city's historic preservation board to consider giving the cemetery site landmark designation.

Local historian Larry Wiggins recently ran a genealogy records search on the "Lemon City Cemetery", of which there is no record. The search turned up 523 names, all black people and many from the Bahamas, who had been buried there between 1915 and 1925. That's right around the time when millionaires began developing Miami Beach.

Historian Paul George, who works for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, says "it's mystifying" that this cemetery wasn't on any city maps and nobody fought for its preservation.

However, he has an idea of what happened. 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 I-95, a rapidly changing ethnic makeup of the area, which is now heavily populated with Haitian immigrants.

"We've obliterated our history," said George. "We don't have a great reverence for our past. Things are forgotten very quickly."

Preservationists 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.

Miami's Historic Preservation Board has already voted unanimously 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.