Florida House minority leader calls on FDOT to search for erased Black graves under I-175

Rep. Fentrice Driskell says refusing a search sends mixed messages from the state, which has a new law to help search for and memorialize Black cemeteries.

SAINT PETERSBURG, Fla. — Upon learning from 10 Investigates the Florida Department of Transportation continues to refuse a search for two erased cemeteries that could be under I-175 near Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell has called for a meeting with the agency to change minds.

“What I intend to ask for is that we need to search,” she said. “There’s credible evidence that there could be a Black cemetery there. That there are Black graves there.”

Historical maps and records show Moffett and Evergreen cemeteries once existed along 16th Street S. and 5th Avenue St. underneath I-175.

RELATED: What’s under I-175 in St. Pete? Despite finding bones decades ago, FDOT does not plan to search

Records from FDOT show Moffett Cemetery was established in 1888 for Civil War veterans and suggests the site eventually accepted African Americans’ burials. 

Evergreen Cemetery, also known as St. Petersburg Cemetery, was established several years later for African Americans. 

Neither of the sites is visible today, but newspaper accounts from the 1970s show where crews found bones during road construction. 

Corey Givens, Jr. of St. Petersburg fears his great-great-grandfather remains in one of those sites.

“They were bulldozed and built over,” he said. “And to erase that history, that’s a grave injustice.”

10 Investigates has been asking FDOT for years if the agency will hire archaeologists to scan the ground for graves.

The city of St. Petersburg did it in 2021 for the erased Oaklawn cemetery, which was once located under a parking lot for Tropicana Field — directly across from Evergreen and Moffett. 

Despite that search, FDOT’s repeated answer has been, ‘No.’ A spokesperson said in an email, “Just to reiterate, FDOT is not planning any GPR surveys.”

RELATED: After discovery of more than 300 graves on property site, FrankCrum sues city of Clearwater

“I’m very disappointed to hear that FDOT has not been taking leadership on that,” Driskell said.

Driskell says FDOT refusing a search sends the wrong message from the state since the legislature this year unanimously passed bills to help search for and memorialize destroyed Black cemeteries.

“I do really appreciate you bringing it to my attention, because with the passage of House Bill 49 this past legislative session, we saw the state dedicate unprecedented funds towards the issue, specifically of abandoned African American cemeteries,” Driskell explained. 

Over the last four years, school districts, businesses, the Tampa Housing Authority, and even MacDill Air Force Base have all stepped up to search their properties upon learning of possible graves. Driskell says it’s time for FDOT to do the same.

“There’s credible evidence, and now would really be the time to investigate the land more and make sure that if there are cemeteries there, that appropriate steps are taken, and that those lives are memorialized,” she said.

It’s an effort Givens says would help bring closure. 

“We deserve to know if they are at peace or not,” he said. “We’re not at peace not knowing where our ancestors may or may not be buried.”

Emerald Morrow is an investigative reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.

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