Coalition pressing on for ’28 Okeechobee Hurricane Memorial

WEST PALM BEACH — The people behind the founding of Storm of ’28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc. 20 years ago will not relent in their quest despite yet another postponement.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Dorothy Hazard
WEST PALM BEACH — Taken on the occasion of the services marking the 91st anniversary of the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, professional singer Terrion Nelson performs at a gathering on the site of the mass grave where 674 black victims of the storm were buried.

The West Palm Beach City Commission was to hear the group’s application Oct. 7 for permanent 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane Memorial Park to be established at the mass grave site in the city’s old paupers’ cemetery, at Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street. Then it was delayed until Monday, Nov. 4. Coalition President Dorothy Hazard, wife of founder Robert Hazard, said Oct. 25 the hearing had been set back once more, indefinitely this time.

She had been encouraging their supporters to urge commissioners at next week’s meeting to authorize establishing the memorial park in honor of the victims, largely composed of migrant African American farmworkers who drowned during the Sept. 16, 1928, Okeechobee Hurricane that caused the Big Lake to overflow the meager earthen dike that existed at that time and flooded the Glades. The bodies of 674 black, mixed- and unknown-race people, Mrs. Hazard said, “were dumped in a trench without coffins, without last rites without their family and friends being able to identify them.”

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Dorothy Hazard
Robert Hazard, founder of the nonprofit corporation pushing for construction of a monument on the site, holds a flower during the ceremony.

Yet “there are quite a few survivors left” from the storm, all in their 90s now, and “it will help the people in the community as far as the healing process,” she said.

“It will also make people aware of what not only our organization (has done) — because, you know, it takes a lot of people involved to do things like this, and our organization has had a lot of help from so many people and so many different organizations that we would be going on and on to really give them the proper respect and appreciation. We can only say thank you to all the people who have supported the coalition over these years.”

Mrs. Hazard said they have had support from many folks who wanted to be present at the hearing, and she’s in the process of emailing, texting and calling them all to let them know of the delay and to remain ready to join together and plead their case before the city commission.

“It’s going to be about 30 to 60 days out before they give us another date when we will be on the agenda,” she said Friday.

Asked whether they’ve talked with the mayor and commissioners, Mrs. Hazard said: “We have not contacted them directly. What we are doing is we’re following the information that we had about the application process … and we are praying that they are in agreement with this because it’s very important that we get this memorial monument there.”

Her husband began this movement back in the 1990s, some time after the Sonkafa Society conducted a well-publicized blessing ceremony at the cemetery in 1991. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation was established in 1999 to reacquire the land for a public park and solicit donations for a memorial complex, according to local TV media reports and Wikipedia.

The coalition would like to see the memorial park include an educational center and museum with exhibits on African American and other migrant pioneers and farmworkers, who were “mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, and they helped to build up Palm Beach County. This was known as the agricultural capital of the nation at one time,” she said.

The Storm of ’28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc. maintains that a proper burial and permanent emblem to recall the lives lost in the disaster is a historical must.

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the not-for-profit organization may mail contributions in the form of checks made out to “Storm of ’28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc.” to P.O. Box 2186, West Palm Beach, FL 33402. Call 561-881-8298 or email mayaspersonalservice@gmail.com for more information or if you have questions.

“We’re requesting donations because we would like to make sure that this memorial monument is erected,” Mrs. Hazard said.

The gravesite occupies 1.03 acres at the northwestern edges of the land. The city had owned but sold the property, and afterward it changed ownership several times. The city repurchased it in December 2000. A ground-penetrating radar survey was done. Nearly two years later, it was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. A historical marker was put up on the storm’s 75th anniversary by the City of West Palm Beach in 2003. There are sidewalks, trees and benches along with several pillars reading “1928.”

The roughly 40- by 80-foot area where the mass grave is (the bodies were laid to rest in two layers) now has a fence surrounding it. When 25th Street was realigned in the 1950s, some of the graves in the farthest northern portion of the paupers’ cemetery actually were paved over.

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