Deerfield Beach City Commission Votes to Build Townhouses on Black Cemetery

The site of the old cemetery, which may soon be a new townhouse development.
The site of the old cemetery, which may soon be a new townhouse development.
Michelle Eve Sandberg

The Deerfield Beach City Commission voted to allow a 69-townhouse development to be built on land that once held a black cemetery and that could still have human remains, despite public outcry against the project. Out of five members voting on the City Commission, three voted in favor of the project and two were against.

Theodus Times, funeral director for the Rahming-Poitier Funeral Home and one of the leading voices against the project, told New Times he was disappointed with the outcome and would soon be working with others to take legal action.

The close vote came after several weeks of emotional – and sometimes philosophical – discussion about what to do with the five-acre plot of land that has been privately owned by Boca developer Rob Kassab since 1986.

People who oppose the townhouse plan say that building on top of land that was once a cemetery is disrespectful to the dead and dismissive of history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Old Colored Cemetery,” as it was once called, was the only place black people could be buried in Deerfield Beach due to racist laws not allowing nonwhites to be buried in “white” cemeteries. By building on top of the land, critics say, the city would essentially be erasing history.

"Just like black lives matter, black deaths matter," Times says.

But Kassab, armed with two studies conducted in 1986, just before he bought the property, and in 2005, the last time he proposed building on the site, says there are no more human remains. Both studies found no evidence of human remains on the site, although neither could say with 100 percent certainty if the site was entirely clear.

If all the bodies were indeed moved, nobody seems to know where they went. And many Deerfield Beach residents have maintained that their loved ones are definitely still buried on the site.

But even if no bodies are still in the ground, the symbolism of what the land means is still very real to many people in Deerfield Beach.

At a recent city meeting, residents told Kassab and his attorney, Dwayne Dickerson, that the cemetery had suffered decades of disrespect by city leaders and owners of the land. In 1974, then-owner Joseph Grosso bulldozed the land and destroyed all of the grave markers. Afterward, residents claim some of those markers were strewn about town, sometimes even used to prop up fire hydrants. And in the following decades, the land — always privately owned — was left in disarray, an eyesore with overgrown grass in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Instead of a townhouse development, many Deerfield residents have called on the city to work a deal with Kassab and build a memorial garden.

“I look at this and I say the solution is for the city to buy this property and the property should be dedicated as a memorial garden,” said Deerfield Beach resident David Cohen. “This is a place of importance in history.”

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