CEDAR KEY, Fla. — Hurricanes are destructive forces of nature that take with it memories, valuables and for this Florida city, its history.
The Cedar Key Historical Society started research on the Cedar Key Cemetery five years ago, where they found out that 30 unmarked graves were located there.
Thirty unmarked graves turned into 90 anomalies that met the markers for potentially unmarked graves. All of which are to be marked.
“We were shocked,” said Shannon Baxman, a board member of the Cedar Key Historical Society. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, these have to be marked and need to be marked.’”
Cedar Key, a quaint island community in North Florida, is no stranger to hurricanes. However, the cost that hurricanes have created on its cemeteries is one that creates a gap in its history.
The Cedar Key Cemetery was established in 1888, but its graves date back to 1872. In 2019, a woman in her 80s, known as Mrs. O’Neill, who has gone to the cemetery once a year since she was a child brought up to Anna White Hodges, the executive director of the Cedar Key Historical Society, that she noticed less and less markers at the cemetery every time she went.
“She could see better than we could, she could see the changes,” Hodges said.
The woman brought Hodges to the cemetery to show her the area where she saw the most change – a hill in the back of the cemetery close to the Gulf of Mexico where Black families were predominantly buried. There Hodges noticed that most of their markers were gone.
With the cemetery being steps away from the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes, like Hurricane Easy of 1950, were particularly destructive to the area Hurricanes along with the natural weathering are likely perpetrators to the disappearance of the graves.
Hodges and other members of the historical society hope to see the graves marked with “unknown” across the stone. Hodges set out to do just that during a Nov. 15 meeting with the Cedar Key City Commission.
Hodges approached the city commission to request it allocate $7,650 for granite markers to be set in the area where these anomalies were found.
The city commission unanimously voted to grant the funds for the markers at the meeting.
To receive funding for more research about the cemetery, Hodges started to compile all the information needed, such as burial records and death certificates to apply for a grant from the state of Florida. In 2020, the historical society applied and in June 2021 received a grant of $50,000 that went solely to more research to locate and mark the original 30 unmarked Black burials in the cemetery.
As research continued about the 30 unmarked burials, the historical society hired a team from Digital Heritage Interactive to do Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to initially search for the 30 unmarked burials on the hill of the cemetery.
GPR is a nonintrusive method of surveying that uses radar pulses to create an image of the underground. With these pulses, GPR can show disturbances in the ground without the need for digging.
However, as more information came out about the cemetery, so did the need for a map of the grounds using a Geographic Information System (GIS) interactive map. This map would allow visitors to interact with a map of the cemetery where they can click on a burial site, and can learn more about those interned there with a click of a button.
With that, the historical society then went into two phases. First, they created a complete map of the existing, marked graves. And then second, they ventured out to the top of the hill. It was during the second phase that they found shocking news – thirty graves turned into 90 unmarked graves.
The graves were not the only shocking news the historical society found out about its cemetery. In a time when segregation was prominent in the South, the Cedar Key Cemetery was integrated.
To find this information, the historical society looked at a Black woman buried in the cemetery by the name of Adeline Tape. She worked in a fiber factory and lived in Cedar Key until her death in 1927.
After using photogrammetry to raise the lettering on her grave, which was completely weathered down, the historical society found that her stone matched 24 other stones in the cemetery, some of which are buried alongside white graves. These graves match the death certificates the historical society pulled from their archives.
After this discovery, Hodges said she now intends to request the state of Florida install a historic marker to commemorate the findings.
“That’s big,” Hodges said. “That’s the big news.”
Even so, the threat of Mother Nature continues to loom on the Cedar Key Cemetery. The fear of another slow-moving hurricane like Hurricane Ian or Hurricane Easy threaten the state of the cemetery. And rising sea levels threaten the cemetery that is steps away from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Although there are always these threats, Hodges said the project is only a foundation for something much bigger – a place where those who have lost their family members can someday find their lost loved ones.