USF unveils ‘What Lies Beneath,’ an exhibit on the research into more than 40 ‘lost cemeteries’

The University of South Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science has opened a public exhibit that showcases the findings of three years of work on disappeared burial grounds.

Led by associate professor Erin Kimmerle and her Ph.D. candidate Kelsee Hentschel-Fey, ‘What Lies Beneath’ displays modern photos, archival documents, and maps that show the approximate locations of over 40 abandoned cemeteries in Hillsborough County.

Kimmerle is a forensic anthropologist known for her research into unmarked graves of students who died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL.

The work on lost cemeteries started in 2019 when research, including work by Tampa Bay Times journalist Paul Guzzo, found two Tampa African American cemeteries that were built over in the 1950s — Zion Cemetery on a Florida Ave. site owned by the Tampa Housing Authority and the Ridgewood Cemetery located on the grounds of King High School.

A blonde woman wearing glasses speaks at a podium with a number of microphones on it. She's motioning with one hand to make a point. A sign reading 'What Lies Beneath' is to her left and a green screen with multiple logos of the University of South Florida is behind her.

Mark Schreiner


WUSF Public Media

USF forensic anthropology associate professor Erin Kimmerle speaks at the opening of ‘What Lies Beneath,’ an exhibition looking at research into more than 40 ‘lost cemeteries’ throughout Hillsborough County that is at the Social Science Building on the Tampa campus.

“I think in some way we have to kind of move away from the concept of abandoned cemeteries, as we typically think of it, in order to understand how some of these other sites have disappeared,” Kimmerle said.

One finding from the investigation is that eighteen of the sites, almost 44% of those discovered, were classified as African American, Afro-Cuban, or “colored” during the era of segregation.

But “What Lies Beneath’” sheds light on forgotten stories not only through a scientific lens but, more importantly, through a deeply human perspective.

Christina Arenas is one of the people directly impacted by this research. She is a direct descendant of some of the fifty people — some who were enslaved — who were buried in the “disappeared” cemetery of Keystone Memorial Park in Odessa.

A young man with dark hair interviews a Black woman who stands in front of a blue wall with pictures on it. He's holding a microphone and wearing headphones.

Mark Schreiner


WUSF Public Media

Christina Arenas speaks to WUSF’s João Victor Pina at the opening of the exhibition ‘What Lies Beneath’ at the USF Social Science Building Friday.

Arenas was one of the major supporters of the project and attended the inauguration event for the exhibition at the USF Tampa campus Friday.

“For many years, no one would know that they (people buried in lost cemeteries) even existed and what they contributed to that area. Now, it will be in print. Now, someone can Google and they’ll be able to see a little bit of the history our ancestors provided for the area,” she said.

While the exhibition displays extensive work from the research team to identify these grounds, there’s reason to believe that more sites will be found across Florida in the upcoming years.

“There was a task force in 1999 that estimated up to 100 unmarked burials that were still unaccounted for in every (Florida) county,” said Kimmerle. “It just gives you a sense of how big of an issue this really is.”

Kimmerle also emphasized the pivotal role of students in the exploration of these sites and development of “What Lies Beneath.”

“They have been integral to every part, from fieldwork to archival research and also creating the exhibit. It’s all been a student-led initiative,” she said.

“It’s a great opportunity because there’s so much you can learn,” said Kelsee Hentschel-Fey, a forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology Ph.D. candidate.

“(Kimmerle) likes us to be completely cross-trained with forensics and bioarchaeology. She wants us to have a really great understanding of the cultural heritage, doing archival work, and we also have the opportunity to do all the field work,” she added.

And the ability to provide answers to people who may not know what happened to their loved ones is something Hentschel-Frey finds rewarding — eventually.

“It’s really strange, I don’t ever think about it until the very end when I talk to a family member,” she said. “To be honest, this is what I do. I enjoy doing this — I go through the steps and then I don’t realize the impact until a family member talks to me and pulls me aside, and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.'”

Other contributors to the interdisciplinary investigation include GIS Manager Benjamin Mittler and Lori Collins of the USF Center for Digital Heritage and Geospatial Information.

This exhibit will be open to the public through January 30, at The Waterman Exhibit Gallery within the Social Science Building, at 12320 USF Genshaft Drive on the Tampa campus.

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