Human skull fragments, gold-capped teeth found at Deerfield Beach construction site

Construction halted at site that had been black cemetery

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – As construction was beginning on a controversial luxury townhome project built over what was once a black cemetery, archeologists unearthed human skull fragments, two gold-capped teeth, an iron coffin handle and apparent coffin nails at the site, according to a city report obtained by Local 10 News.

The human remains were discovered Friday at the five-acre site in Deerfield Beach where dozens of black residents were buried beside a church, primarily during the first half of the last century.

The remains were discovered during a "shovel test" of one of 230 "anomalies" discovered at the site by the Archeological and Historical Conservancy, at a depth of about three feet, according to a report by the city-hired archeological firm Advanced Archeology, Inc.

The city commission, in a heated commission meeting during which many residents protested, voted on April 7 to allow Boca Raton developer Rob Kassab to build 69 townhomes on the site despite it being a historic cemetery and concerns that bodies were still in the ground.

"This is much much bigger than just a small piece of property -- this is our history," said Sherman Morris. "It's not for sale. We're not willing to give up this fight for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver."

Despite the outcry, a majority of three commissioners, led by Mayor Jean Robb, voted to allow construction to begin, leading to Friday's discovery.

It was only the latest in a series of poor decisions regarding the property during the past four decades.

In the 1970s, the gravestones were bulldozed with no notification given to families by a private landowner. At one point, the water table rose, unearthing numerous gravesites. Numerous bodies were moved, but the city failed to record them.

"Our city didn't bother to keep records," said city activist Joan Maurice. "We didn't bother to let people know that we were going to dig up their families and move them someplace."

Despite the fact that numerous grave sites appeared to be unaccounted for, some estimate that more than 300 people were buried there. Two studies, one in 1986 and another in 2005, determined there were no remains on the site, despite the use of a magnetometer.

"Our history has been covered up, buried, misplaced," said Morris. "At what point does our history matter?"

The city, meanwhile, has been quiet on recent events, with city manager Burgess Hanson actively attempting to keep the public in the dark about what was found. In a memo sent to elected officials sent on Friday after Local 10 News learned that remains were found, Hanson asked commissioners to keep the information away from the media and residents.

"I would kindly ask that the [archeological report to the city] not be disclosed to the media or the public," Hanson wrote. "We do know that certain media institutions are aware of our findings. They can submit a public records request for the information and it will be provided to them. The city attorney and staff need to evaluate the information and meet with our archeologist. We do not want to create any unnecessary legal issues."

The Florida Division of Historical Resources ordered that the project be ceased after the bones and teeth were discovered, and the investigation continues.

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