On Thursday night in Deerfield Beach, residents of the city gathered to hear the case of Rob Kassab, a Boca Raton businessman who wants to build townhouses on land that was once home to a black cemetery. The topic is an emotional one for people here and several expressed their disgust that development and profits are taking precedence over remembrance of the past.
Kassab didn't speak much, letting his attorney Dwayne Dickerson do most of the talking. And Dickerson explained that Kassab bought the land in 1986 under the impression that human remains were no longer in the ground. An archaeological study conducted two months before the 1986 purchase found no evidence of human remains and Kassab went through with the purchase, Dickerson said, adding that another study in 2005 came to the same conclusion.
Kassab, whose father once owned a steel company in the city, said only a few words indicating his commitment to the community and desire to begin a project residents will be happy with.
But Theodus Times, a 30-year-old funeral home director whose uncle, Lohman Rahming, led the movement against development on the cemetery during the last time the topic came up in 2005, said it would be morally wrong to build on grounds where a cemetery once stood. And during his brief speech, he said there is evidence of at least one former slave in the cemetery.
“I found one of the records and the occupation listed was 'former slave,'” Times said. “And so you tell me, in 2015, that it's proper that we bury on top of where we buried former slaves. Is that right? Is that proper? Are we in need of development and land so bad that we'll build on former slaves? People who were looked down on. People who never had a chance for anything.”
One of the concerns residents who were in favor of development on the land was that it's an eyesore and virtually anything would be better than the current state it's in. Although Kassab has owned the property since 1986, one resident who lives near the property complained about having to call the city herself to get the grass cut. Times said the land has always been in private hands and the city never made an effort to give the land a memorial recognition. Instead, it has been passed along and neglected.
“This property has been defaced, it's been disrespected, disrespected, and disrespected,” Times told the crowd. “It's not our fault that it's private property, it's not our fault that it's grown-up. If we had our choice, it would be a lot different than how it is today, but it's not our fault.”
New Times asked Kassab why he hasn't done anything with the property during the nearly 30 years he has owned it, but would not comment.
Anthony Dispenziere, head of a local think tank called Deerfield Dreams, said the best course of action would be to develop on the property to build up the downtown area and, if any remains are found, to create a proper resting grounds.
“Let's honor these people the way they deserve to be honored,” he said.
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But the majority of residents spoke out against the development, including David Cohen, who likened the treatment of the Deerfield cemetery to Jewish cemeteries in Europe after World War II.
“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,” Cohen said. “This is a place of importance in history.”
He added: “This is not an issue of dollars and cents. This is a question of people's religious and emotional values being discounted.”
The city commission postponed a vote on the project in February. A new date has not yet been set.