South Florida Sun-Sentinel

See how Mnemotrix Systems, Inc. assisted AHC with GPR
in looking beneath the surface of an old Deerfield Beach cemetery
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Posted and published in the Sun-Sentinel, South Florida, October 5th, 2004
Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Digging for Clues
Digging for Clues
Archaeologists Joe Mankowski, left, and Ned Gordon dig around a piece of concrete at a vacant field in Deerfield Beach that many insist is an old cemetery. In the background, work begins on a ground-penetrating radar survey. (Staff photo/Anastasia Walsh Infanzon)
Hallowed Ground:
High-tech team hopes to learn whether Deerfield lot is an old graveyard

By Susannah Bryan
Staff Writer
Posted October 5, 2004

DEERFIELD BEACH It may appear ordinary soil, but some say a mystery lies beneath.

To hear old-timers tell it, this patch of land is hallowed ground that may still hold the bones of people who died long ago.

The wooden crosses that marked their graves have long since vanished, worn away by wind and rain. But pioneer families and historians say as many as 300 people, mostly poor black residents, were buried on the land from 1896 through the 1940s.

"That was a graveyard, I can tell you that much," said Deerfield Beach resident Edith Storr, 75, whose uncle once dug graves there by hand.

The field, vacant for decades, lies a couple blocks east of Dixie Highway on Southeast Fourth Street. A former landowner bulldozed the tract in the late 1970s, sparking an outcry from residents who remembered the old tombstones. They did not want to see homes built on the parcel, which is listed in a 1941 federal survey as the "old colored cemetery."

After decades of speculation and rumor, a team of archaeologists is trying to settle the mystery once and for all.

Archaeologist Bob Carr descended on the site last week with a crew armed with ground-penetrating radar. The equipment will allow them to create a map of what lies beneath the 3-acre site, said Mike Pincus, on-site supervisor for the Coral Springs company that operates the radar.

Using Radar to Find Unmarked Graves
Click image for 3D GPR Animation
A computer will transform the radar signals into a three-dimensional image. That map will guide Carr and his team of archaeologists when they return to the site later this week to begin excavation. It may be a month before they have answers.

Last week, during drizzling rain, Carr pointed to a section of concrete slab visible through the grass. "That's consistent with what you'd see in a cemetery," said Carr, executive director of the nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in Davie.

The $15,000 excavation will be paid for equally by the county, city and landowner Rob Kassab.

Should remains be found, the state archaeologist and possibly the county medical examiner would become involved, said Christopher Eck, administrator of the Broward County Historical Commission, who came out to observe the start of the project.

The remains would likely be unearthed for reburial at one of the city's two cemeteries, City Manager Larry Deetjen said.

Even if no graves are found, the city plans to erect a memorial to recognize the historical significance of the land.

Lohman Rahming, 56, remembers tombstones dotting the field when he played there as a boy in the 1950s. Some of the graves bore his mother's maiden name of Poitier.

As a child, Rahming lived just a block from the cemetery.

Earlier this year, Rahming was one of the people leading the charge to ensure the cemetery was given proper respect. During community meetings conducted by the city, several residents requested an archaeological search of the grounds.

"This has been a problem going on all these years, and nothing's ever been done about it," said Rahming, who saved an old newspaper clipping about property owners stirring controversy every time they tried to develop the land.

"Eventually, one guy came in and bulldozed all the headstones and hauled them away to the dump," said Rahming, who runs a funeral home in Deerfield Beach. "When I was a boy it looked like a cemetery. But when they bulldozed it down, it didn't look like a cemetery."

Many old-timers would prefer development not to come to the parcel. But because the land is privately owned, it may indeed be destined for development.

While Kassab has no immediate plans to build on the parcel, the location of the land makes it a prime spot for housing.

Kassab bought the land in the 1980s after a team of anthropologists from Florida Atlantic University tested the soil and determined it contained no human remains, he said.

"They used the best technology they had at the time, and we bought the property," he said. "But some of the folks still have memories. And I have no doubt there were people probably buried there."

But even Storr, whose uncle dug graves at the cemetery, isn't sure whether this latest excavation will bring any profound discoveries.

Uncovering the Past
Uncovering the Past:
Archaeogeophysicist Jessie Pincus, right, and Mishca Mader start on a radar survey, which is mapping what lies beneath a Deerfield Beach field many say is a cemetery that was used through the 1940's. (Staff photo/Anastasia Walsh Infanzon)
"I don't know whether any remains are still there," Storr said from her home on Friday. "That was a long time ago."

But she doesn't like the idea of putting homes on the land.

Rahming is another one who shudders at talk of turning what he considers hallowed ground into a site for housing. He would prefer the city or state to purchase the land and turn it into a park to honor the people who were buried there.

Storr also likes the idea of a memorial park. "That would be better than someone living on the top of you," she said.

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sun-sentinel.com or 954-572-2028.

Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel