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1928 Palm Beach County hurricane victims: Honored after decades but forgotten again

For decades it was an empty field. The dead lay unseen, under the dirt.

Then people demanded action and by 2003, on the 75th anniversary of the great storm, a fence was installed and trees planted. A marker and pillars told the world: We do not forget.

But now, a decade later, weeds grow at 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue atop the mass grave holding 674 victims of a disaster that occurred 85 years ago today, the worst ever to beset Palm Beach County: the 1928 hurricane.

One mid-morning last week, just after a sun shower, the only visitor was a homeless man, hosing himself down at a spigot.

The city mows the place every few weeks, but that’s about it. The paint on the commemorative bench and the finish on the double wrought iron fence are peeling. An iron bar has been pried loose. Nearby businesses conduct commerce and motorists drive by, indifferent to the import of the place.

“It has never looked this bad in all the 14 years I’ve been on the board,” said City Commissioner Ike Robinson, whose district included the site until lines were redrawn a few years ago. The city is “letting our parks and memorials go to heck in a breadbasket.”

Colleague Sylvia Moffett, in whose district the grave now lies, said last week that neighbors are torn on whether amenities such as an amphitheater or restrooms would be helpful additions or sacrilege. She hopes to have more talks soon.

“Even if it’s not an active park, we owe it to people to maintain it,” Moffett said.

On Sept. 16, 1928, the Category 4 storm smashed coastal Palm Beach County, washing out a flimsy 6-foot-high dike around Lake Okeechobee. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people were killed throughout the area.

With so many bodies, and amid health fears, authorities and searchers buried the dead where they could, burned corpses in massive pyres or dug makeshift mass graves.

At Tamarind and 25th, bodies of black victims were dumped in a 75-foot-long, 20-foot-wide trench at a black paupers’ cemetery.

The site went unmarked for decades. In the 1960s, 25th Street was rerouted, putting part of the grave under the street.

For some, the deteriorated grounds raise an ugly question: What if the mass grave held white people?

“It wouldn’t be like this,” said Robert Hazard, an advocate for the site, shaking his head. “It wouldn’t be like this.”

Hazard, who lives nearby, said he comes by every day “to play chess, checkers, dominoes. This place is being — I don’t know — I’m not saying neglected. There’s just no concern for the significance.”

But, he said, “that’s not to say that it has to stay this way.”

A movement to mark the spot took off in the early 1990s. That’s when it came to the attention of Hazard, a recent transplant from New England who’d never heard of the storm.

The city bought the site in 2000. It installed fences, a winding sidewalk, palm trees and benches and spread fresh mulch, all in time for the big anniversary in 2003.

At the time Hazard had stars in his eyes. He envisioned a $6 million garden, monument and educational center that would tell not just local black history but teach about hurricanes and the great storm.

“We gave that up, man,” he said, standing at one of the pillars that says simply, “1928.”

Oh, they tried. Hazard created the “Storm of ‘28 Memorial Garden Coalition.” He sought state, federal and county grants. The city tried as well, without result.

In 2002, the city offered the memorial coalition a lease on the place. The group balked. It would have been responsible for any chemicals found in the ground, and part of the property had once been used for a landfill. Besides, Hazard’s small group had neither the money nor the organization to take on the site.

Hazard said he can’t be critical of the city. It did what it said it would. But after 2003, people turned to other needs and the city went through political turnover and economic turmoil.

“I’m well aware life went on,” he said. He had his own concerns: He came down to administer a charter school but is unemployed.

Something else: “Most of the people that were on my board of directors were survivors of the storm. And they died off.”

Hazard recalls one politician lamenting: “Wait long enough and people die. Or lose interest.”

A decade later, Hazard’s still around. He imagines a cleaned-up, well-used park, used as a backdrop for wedding photos or yoga classes. Restrooms. Tables for checkers and chess. Informational banners hanging from light poles or educational kiosks. Perhaps, he said, the state would step in and make it a state park. It’s already on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Is it perceived as being an African-American historical site? Or an American historical site?” Hazard asked.

City parks and recreation director Christine Thrower said that the site is not on the city’s parks master plan, written in the late 1990s, and wasn’t on a list of sites eligible for money under a $20 million city bond issue for parks in 2000. The city scrambled to find money for the improvements that it did make.

Now that the city is pulling out of the recession, Thrower said, it will assemble a new parks master plan and she’s open to Hazard’s ideas.

She stressed that the site had been designed as “more of a memorial park than an active park.” But, she said, “there are many things we could do to honor what that area stands for.”

Hazard hopes new benefactors will emerge for the historic site.

“Thinking about the potential it has, not having the resources to make it happen, ” he said, “I don’t know where to look.”

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