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The wrong they could not bury

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Robert Hazard frequently meditates on the site of the mass grave, at which he placed a wreath, now faded, during a 1998 memorial service. Hazard is working to turn the site into a memorial complex. 

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


"I wasn't born when the Storm hit, but my father lived through it. His name was Johnny B. Thomas, and I didn't meet him till I was grown up, but right away, all he could talk about was the Storm of 1928, and how he had to bury all those people in the trench, how he dug these deep graves and threw the dead bodies in there like animals. He died four years ago in a nursing home, and even at the end, he'd tell me he could still smell the flesh."

-- Luvenia "Mama Lou" Washington, 70,
Riviera Beach community volunteer.

When the great Storm of 1928 swept hundreds of African-Americans in South Florida to their deaths, many were buried in an unmarked ditch in West Palm Beach. One man now leads the struggle to remember them.

WEST PALM BEACH -- Inside a chain-link fence, ancient banyan trees tower over a field of dry, patchy grass along 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue. Rooted deep in the soil and this town's past, they stand like sentries over the lost and unknown in the soft earth below.

Just beyond the branches, beside a tattered wreath, an area 40 yards long and 20 yards wide is cordoned off by string.

Four old wooden stakes anchor the string. Each one bears words, scrawled in marker, as stark as the empty field:

"Mass grave."

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Luvenia "Mama Lu" Washington holds a photo of her late father, Johnny B. Thomas, at age 90.He was a survivor of the 1928 storm.
Twenty feet down, the bodies of 674 African-American men, women and children remain in limbo. They were migrant farmers and laborers of western Palm Beach County, killed by one of the nation's most devastating hurricanes, the Storm of 1928.

In life, they helped turn a South Florida swamp into a booming tropical mecca. In death, they were pitched into a trench, the spot unmarked all these years later by even a headstone or plaque.

The grave in West Palm Beach's inner city has been a focal point for outrage because of the shabby treatment of the bodies and the lack of closure for elderly survivors and their descendents. It is also a powerful reminder of an enormous tragedy for blacks.

"This storm is easily the greatest single natural disaster ever to happen in the history of African-Americans," says Florida A&M; University professor Theodore Hemmingway, who is finishing a book on the subject.

Like many scholars, Hemmingway takes issue with the official government estimate of 1,800 deaths. He says between 3,000 and 6,000 people died in the hurricane, four-fifths of them poor blacks working the fertile sugar cane and bean fields near Lake Okeechobee.

He believes the public knows little about the storm and the nameless lives it claimed. "We cannot let those victims be forgotten," he says.

Now 674 of them may finally get their proper place in history. After years of pressure from West Palm's black community and a recent dramatic turn of events, the city is on the verge of righting a long-neglected injustice.

What emerges is a story of the souls beneath the ground -- and the soul of a community above.

photo
[Archival photo courtesy of Robert Hazard]
When the Storm of 1928 backtracked to Belle Glade, dumping water sucked from Lake Okeechobee, thousands of black residents were killed. Hundreds of bodies were transported to West Palm Beach, where they were buried in a mass grave at 25th Street and Tamarind Ave.

* * *

"My parents were survivors of the storm, and my mother was pregnant with me when it hit. The winds came, and the house was rocking back and forth, and the water started pouring in. My mother and father and my father's parents jumped on a chair, then a table to stay above the water. Then, my father was able to unhinge the door and lay it over the rafters, and they climbed up on it. The water moccasins would come up on the door, and they'd have to slap them off, and there were gators in the water, too. My parents sat there for more than a day before somebody came by in a boat and got them."

-Vera Farrington, 72,
former assistant principal at Boca Raton High School

A tale of two grave sites

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
When their parents survived the Storm of 1928, Vera Rolle Farrington, left, was in her
mother's womb; her sister, Mary Alford, right, would be born later.

The storm struck on Sept. 16, 1928. It churned through Jupiter Inlet and rolled across Palm Beach County and Lake Okeechobee, pulling with it the shallow waters from the lake as it headed west to the Gulf of Mexico.

Later estimated as a Category 4 storm, which pack winds up to 155 miles per hour, the hurricane hit the gulf and abruptly shifted back toward the lake. This undeveloped, rural stretch of the state had no means of mass communication, no warning systems. The fierce winds struck in the darkness, dumping water back into the lake and demolishing the weak dikes that once held it in place. An enormous wall of water cascaded over Belle Glade and surrounding towns in the countryside, flooding them beneath eight-foot waves along a path 35 miles long.

Countless dead bodies floated in the flooded fields. When the water subsided, people worked frantically to dispose of corpses to prevent the spread of disease. Some bodies were buried in the banks of canals, others stacked high by the roadside, doused in kerosene and cremated in funeral pyres.

Hundreds more were crammed into the backs of trucks and hauled through the muck into West Palm. The first to arrive, black and white, were brought to Woodlawn Cemetery in the white part of town to be buried in wooden coffins. But in the days that followed, the number of black victims increased drastically. They were now taken to a black paupers' cemetery at 25th and Tamarind.

photo
[Archival photo courtesy of Robert Hazard]
While some bodies were taken away for burial in West Palm Beach, others were piled near where
they were found and burned to prevent disease.

A steam shovel dug a trench. Black men, rounded up by authorities, assisted with the burial. The dead -- many unrecognizable -- were tossed in and covered with quicklime, each body counted by health officials. Guards ordered the black workers to make sure that no whites were thrown into this trench. They were told to rely on facial features or hair texture if necessary. White bodies were to be held for a day or two so attempts could be made to identify them.

Florida author Zora Neale Hurston described the mass burial in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: "... Don't let me ketch none uh y'all dumpin' white folks, and don't be wastin' no boxes on colored," a guard in the book says. "They's too hard tuh git ahold of right now."

Today, Woodlawn Cemetery is surrounded by West Palm's upscale downtown, in the shadow of Trump Plaza and a Jaguar dealer. It is easy to find the grassy stretch where 69 bodies are buried, 61 of them white. A small marble headstone bears the inscription, "In memory of those citizens of Palm Beach County who lost their lives in the Storm of 1928."

Only a short drive away, in a far less affluent neighborhood, is the nondescript expanse of weeds and dry grass where the rest of the story lies.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Some who died during the storm, most of them white, are buried in West Palm Beach's Woodlawn Cemetery and are memorialized by this marker. Those interred in the unmarked mass grave were African-American.

* * *

"After they came and got my parents in the boat, my mom made them take her through the water to where she thought her parents' house was. They could see dead bodies all around, and she said, "I'm not going to leave this place till I see someone in my family.' And there was a body floating down this canal, a young black man. My daddy grabbed a stick and flipped the dead body over, and his head came up, and it was her brother, Granvill. And then she went out and didn't remember anything for days. She lost her parents and her four siblings. I feel so badly because she never knew what happened to them. By all accounts we read, some of them are in that mass grave in West Palm."

-- Vera Farrington.

The activist arrives

The sun is sinking below a line of tall pines on a recent afternoon, and the solitary figure of a man stands by the grave site, his head bowed toward the earth. He is Robert Hazard, recognized by many as the main force behind the memorial effort.

"I come here at sunrise, sunset or late at night and watch the moon come over these trees," says Hazard, near the string and stakes he set up. "I think I'm somewhat possessed by the spirits in the ground here. I'm possessed by the fact they have been ignored for 73 years now and are crying out for dignity. There's a part of the black community that says, "We do not forget our ancestors."'

He had never heard of the Storm of '28 when he moved with his wife to West Palm from Worcester, Mass., in 1975. A week after arriving, he met a woman who told him her story of surviving the storm. As a child, she nearly drowned after murky, reptile-infested water rushed 6 feet high into a building in which she taken refuge.

"That was my introduction to the storm," says Hazard, 53. "The longer I lived here, the more I realized what a significant impact the Storm of '28 had on Florida. But whenever anything was written or on TV, I'd only hear about the damage, never about the people killed. So I started reading and asking questions and talking to survivors."

Hazard had a history of social involvement. As a young man, he beat a heroin addiction and became a drug counselor in a national outreach program. He was a member of the Black Panthers in 1964 and 1965, supervising free breakfast programs for inner-city children in Massachusetts. Later, he wrote grants for educational programs.

As he studied the storm and attended community meetings, he saw a distinct pattern of disregard for the grave site by past city administrations.

In 1957, the city sold a section of the roughly 15-acre field to the West Palm Beach Sewage Disposal Plant. In 1964, it extended 25th Street through a portion of the field, uncovering human remains. In 1984, the city sold off more of the field -- the part including the mass grave site. The land ended up in the hands of an exterminating company, which paid $175,000 and planned to build offices there.

But in 1991, members of the black community, including Hazard, held a candlelight vigil in memory of the flood victims. An African priest from Miami prayed over the grave site.

The event, covered by the media, was the first Palm Beach Exterminating had heard about a mass grave on the property. Owner Jim Kolkana immediately halted all plans to build on the land, not wanting to desecrate the grave.

For nine years, the site lay idle. Kolkana, unable to build or get his money back, turned his attention elsewhere.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Robert Hazard, leading a movement to honor the forgotten Americans in the mass grave, roped it off with string and markers last year.
In 1998, Hazard took over as the memorial effort's leader and staged a 70th anniversary service at the site, followed by anniversary events in 1999 and 2000. He also organized a non-profit group, the Storm of '28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc., which showcased his ambitious vision for the property -- a meditation garden, education center, hurricane simulator, museum. A glossy markup was done of the plan, estimated to cost $6-million.

Hazard became a constant thorn in the side to city commissioners, urging the city to buy back the land, add a proper marker and find a way -- perhaps with state assistance -- to create the elaborate memorial complex.

City Commissioner Mary Brandenburg has knocked Hazard for not doing a better job as a fundraiser for the memorial, for being unrealistic about what can be built, even for trying to benefit personally by pushing for a memorial center he could then run -- a charge he denies. Over time, some of Hazard's members have broken off to lobby the city on their own.

Yet Brandenburg also praises Hazard for his relentless work, which includes sending endless e-mails, writing the White House and constantly visiting storm survivors.

"Robert has done a lot to raise awareness," says Brandenburg, a leader in the city's efforts for a memorial. "We as a city had forgotten the significance of this site. Frankly, many people in the city government still regard the site as a headache. But Robert is an eloquent, passionate speaker who cares deeply about this."

* * *

"I was born in Delray Beach, and my parents would take me to the Everglades during the season when they were gathering crops. In 1928, when I was 6, my dad stayed back in Delray, and my mother took me and my sister to the Glades. And what saved us was my mother had some Seminole Indian friends. This one Indian friend came to her on Friday, two days before the storm, and he said, "Beatrice, I want you to take your children and leave, because the storm is coming here and the lake is going to overflow.' He said, "I checked, and all the birds are gone.' But how he really knew about the storm was by reading the sawgrass. Each little bud stands for a storm. He could tell from the sawgrass that there was one storm left. So my mother listened to him and took us back to Delray, and we survived."

-- Solomon Rolle, 83,
former Palm Beach County employee.

The exterminator and the appraiser

Efforts to build a memorial had always run into a problem: No one knew the mass grave's exact location in the field. "As long as the city didn't know where it was, it could pass the site off as lost and forgotten," Hazard says.

That changed last February. With Hazard's group pressing to have the exact site located, the city hired a Miami company to look for the site using a sonar device that can read disturbances in ground layers, similar to devices that detect land mines in Kosovo.

The field was marked off in 10-yard grids, and the machine went to work. "The sound waves came back distorted right where we always thought the grave site was," Hazard says. The site was only a few feet from where Hazard, in 1998, had placed the wreath.

The fate of the site was still far from resolved. Jim Kolkana, the exterminating company owner, was still hoping the city would make him a fair offer to buy it. He would settle for $175,000 -- some $100,000 less than he'd put into the property by then.

Kolkana recruited the help of a local appraiser, John Irwin. Several years earlier, Irwin had assigned a value of $1,000 to the property -- his way of saying the land was sacred and could not be developed. Irwin would now play a vital role.

photo
This sign stood on the land that holds the mass grave until the city of West Palm Beach bought back the property in December 2000. The sign is now gone.
The city was willing to take the land back, with the idea of creating a memorial marker, but it didn't want to pay much. Talks went nowhere. Then the city laid the groundwork for condemning the property and reclaiming it by eminent domain. That would allow a judge to determine the value.

Kolkana and Irwin viewed the city's condemnation tactic as a potentially huge public relations blunder and countered with their own strategy.

"A condemnation case would go to court and be costly for both parties," says Irwin, "but we also thought if we did go to court, we would win and the settlement would be on an order the city could not even begin to imagine, many multiples of the amount we were asking. All Jim Kolkana wanted back was his money. All he wanted was to be fair, and for the city to take him out of a situation it had created.

"So we figured the best thing to do was to educate these folks."

Irwin contacted a group of African-American history scholars and explained the dilemma. He collected an outpouring of supportive letters and presented them to the city.

"My work with historic African-American cemeteries ... convinces me that this mass burial in Florida is consistent with those which deserve national notice as sacred, historic sites," wrote Michael D. Blakely of Howard University.

"My dream as a historian ... would be to see the city of West Palm Beach acquire the property on which the grave site is located and transform it into a major state-of-the-art museum, focusing on the life, history and culture of African-Americans in West Palm Beach and Southern Florida," wrote Robert Hall, professor at Northeastern University.

"The development of the site as a memorial to the victims of the 1928 hurricane is the right thing to do, the sacred thing to do," wrote Maxine D. Jones, professor of history at Florida State University.

The letters had a powerful impact on the city commission. On Dec. 11, 2000, the commission unanimously authorized the purchase of the land from Kolkana for $175,000.

"We never should have tried to dispose of the land, but that was 10 or 15 years ago and those people are all gone," Mayor Joel Daves says. "The land should have been preserved for this memorial, and that's what we're in the process of trying to do."

* * *

"A lot of our children don't even know about the 1928 hurricane. We need to make them aware of that, that their ancestors were the ones who helped Mr. Henry Flagler build this area, which was a swamp, infested with rattlesnakes, skeeters and alligators. So in a sense, they gave their lives so they could make South Florida what it is today."

-- Mary Alford, Vera's sister, 70,
retired nurse.

Making a memorial: competing visions

The question is what form a memorial will take.

"We have designated a small amount of money to clean up the site and put up a modest sign designation," says commissioner Brandenburg. "We have hired a consultant to help us do that. We're talking about marking the border of the cemetery with a fence or a hedge and doing some modest landscaping."

What about Hazard's $6-million plan?

"We just can't afford that," she says.

The city is hoping for help from the county and federal governments. State preservationists say the grave could qualify for a state marker, for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places and for limited grant money for restoration. However, state grants cannot cover new construction on a site. That kind of big money would need to come from the Florida Legislature.

Hazard will get lobbying help in that area from a newcomer to his team. West Palm Beach lawyer Richard Ryles successfully sued the state for its role in the massacre of eight blacks in Rosewood in 1923. He saw a similar need for justice in the mass grave and called Hazard, offering his services for free.

He has already contacted several members of the Legislature about the memorial center idea. He is also helping reorganize Hazard's board and will assist with fundraising for a large-scale memorial.

The effort to mark the mass grave has the support of Clarence Clemons, sax player for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and a Palm Beach County resident. He has maintained a file on the memorial and made it his business to speak out publicly about it. "We need to create an awareness for the people who died," Clemons says. "You have to heal the past before you can go on with the future."

Still, Commissioner Mary Brandenburg questions the level of community involvement. "If I had to get 10 people in a room who cared passionately about this, Robert and I would be there, and John Irwin, and that would be it," she says.

"That's true; if Mary called the meeting, only a few people would show up," counters Hazard. "If I called the meeting, I guarantee you there'd be a whole bunch of folks showing up."

So Hazard pushes on. He does it for the people whose bodies lie beneath the field and for thousands of other victims of the storm. Their deaths led, he says, to vast improvements in the dikes of Lake Okeechobee, resulting in a boom in the sugar and produce industry and the growth of the state. Hurricane preparedness improved, saving future lives. Those are things Hazard wants his complex to convey -- the debt owed to so many who were wiped from the earth, then forgotten.

"I am committed to seeing this thing through," he says, "and I can actually begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. The city has stepped up and done its part, and Mayor Joel Daves deserves credit for what he has done. The next question is the quality of honor we owe those 674 folks in the ground. After all these years, I believe we owe them a lot."

* * *

-- To contact the Storm of '28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc., call (561) 881-8298.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Robert Hazard (middle at right) talks to some people with personal connections to the storm of 1928, at the site of the mass grave, at which he placed a wreath, now faded, during a 1998 memorial service.

 

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