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Town unearths forgotten graves on road to historic Central Florida Black cemetery

A veterans headstone is shown caked in mud at the Veterans Liberty Cemetery on Belmont Avenue near Hughes in Fresno. (CRAIG KOHLRUSS/ The Fresno Bee/TNS)

For longer than many can remember, grieving Black families have followed the caskets of their deceased loved ones along a bumpy dirt road into Boston Cemetery where scores of Oviedo’s early farmworkers and veterans of both World Wars are buried.

But the untold story of the century-old cemetery — tucked today between large subdivisions of homes — lies under that gravelly and rutty right-of-way off Alexandria Boulevard.

Oviedo held back its plans to pave the half-mile-long Boston Cemetery Road after archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar confirmed long swirling rumors that unmarked graves of early Black laborers lay buried along the pathway to the graveyard.

After a delicate excavation last summer, a total of 10 remains were reinterred at the historic cemetery formally established in the early 1920s and now owned by Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

Then last month, Oviedo Council members voted unanimously to spend more than $370,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to restart the construction of a paved two-lane roadway into the historic cemetery.

“For myself and the Black community we’re very very proud that Oviedo took on that responsibility. We feel that it’s a blessing,” said Ida Boston, whose family and in-laws helped build the five-acre cemetery. “It’s going to be really nice.”

Boston is a member of Oviedo Citizens in Action, a watchdog group of residents that calls itself “the eyes and ears” for the city’s Black community, which helped lead the charge to excavate the remains and pave the road.

The tale of Boston Cemetery also is a lesson in Oviedo’s Black history.

In the late 1800s, Prince Butler Boston moved to Oviedo and inherited several acres of farmland that his father — a freed plantation slave — owned just south of today’s Mitchell Hammock Road and east of State Road 434.

The Oviedo of that era was largely an agricultural community, where most farms grew celery, cabbage, lettuce and citrus.

Black residents — including those who labored on the farms — were not allowed to be buried in white cemeteries at the time. That was true even though Blacks made up nearly 59% of Oviedo’s population of nearly 1,500 residents, according to the U.S. Census.

So in 1927, Prince Boston donated five acres of wooded land that had long been used as an informal cemetery for migrant workers — many known only by nicknames — to the Historic Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, where he was a longtime member and deacon.

“He decided that they needed to have a formal place for Blacks to be buried because they didn’t have a place out there,” said Dr. Stanley Stone, a church administrator. “And eventually there was an unpaved road (leading to the cemetery). But when it rained, it would just become a big mess…It was just not good at all whenever there was a funeral, and people would go to the cemetery.”

Seminole County crews occasionally brought in heavy equipment to re-mill and smooth the dirt road. But Stone and others feared the workers may have unknowingly trampled over the unmarked gravesites along the road during the work.

“Of course, they would not have known,” he said.

For years, residents urged Oviedo to annex the cemetery property into the city and pave Boston Cemetery Road from Alexandria Boulevard to the graveyard. But that request necessitated the answer to a question: What was under the road?

After bringing the cemetery property into the city about a year ago, Oviedo decided to hire SEARCH Inc., a global archaeological firm based in Orlando, to investigate using ground-penetrating radar.

What they found was stunning: old burial boxes and vaults, all but one without name plates.

“Most of them were skeletons and bones,” said Stone, who helped oversee the survey.

The unidentified remains of nine individuals were then placed in a vault donated by the church and given a respectful burial at the northern edge of the cemetery close to the roadway.

The remains of the tenth individual were discovered in a vault buried with a marker bearing the name of the deceased along the road’s right of way. That individual too was relocated to the cemetery. Stone did not want to reveal the name out of respect for descendants.

But it’s likely all of the remains were of residents who died at an elderly age in the early 20th century because of the condition of their bones and lack of teeth, he said.

The church placed ads in local newspapers asking the public for help in identifying the remains, but did not receive any responses.

“We did the best we could to preserve them,” said Antoine Ferguson, a church member and the cemetery’s caretaker. “When the road was first built, nobody knew that there were remains.”

Over the decades, many other Oviedo residents were properly interred at the cemetery. Today, there are hundreds of gravesites at Boston Cemetery. Last week, a funeral procession followed a hearse along the bumpy road into the area.

Laurel Ross, of American Legion Post 243 in Oviedo, said the remains of 86 veterans reside at Boston Cemetery — including five from World War I and more than 30 from World War II.

“It’s a small cemetery, but it has a lot of history in it,” he said at a recent Oviedo meeting in urging the council to approve paving the roadway. “It’s a minority cemetery. But it’s a heavily veteran cemetery, and that means a lot to us.”

Now that the old graves have been relocated, the construction of the new road is scheduled to begin March 4 and take about four months to complete, city officials said.


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