USF archeologist map unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery

- What lies beneath Tampa's oldest cemetery? That's the question being answered by a group of archaeologist performing a census of Oaklwan Cemetery - in an effort to make it a national historic landmark. 

In what may look to some like an empty field, are 1,500 graves marked with familiar names of Ybor, Weedon, and Henderson. 

There are also vaguely marked headstones for Cuban pirates and lynched slaves.

"This is the gravestone of the first mayor," current Mayor Bob Buckhorn pointed out.

But archaeologist from USF, who have been mapping the land for weeks, are interested in the ones that are not marked.

"It is not an empty field at all," said Tom Pluckhahn of the University of South Florida. 

In the middle of the 3-acre property, the USF team suspects there are 50-60 graves - revealed thanks to magnetic and radar detectors that can peer up to 10 feet down.

"There are a lot of people who don't have monuments that helped build the city," Pluckhahn said. "The slaves, and other people. So it is nice to give them a little of their dignity back, by hopefully finding their graves."

They're making a map, with yellow lines marking what are likely rows of our ancestors.

"Don't forget where you came from," Buckhorn said. "Where we came from is from these folks, these families. Be they rich or poor, free or slave, this is who we are."

The subterranean mapping was ordered so Tampa can apply for a national historic designation. The team from USF plans to mark each grave they find, not with a name, but a reminder that they were here. They are here.

Buckhorn said, "We want to know. We want to pay respects to them. And then we want to make sure that this is a destination that people are proud of."

So far, about four-fifths of the property has been mapped. The USF team said they have two more weeks of work before they're finished. 

Then the city will be in better position to apply for landmark status, which will help protect and restore the property.

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