ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — "This used to be Florida Memorial College," Leslee Keys said as she pointed to overgrown and wooded land in St. Augustine.
And before that property at West King and Holmes Boulevard in St. Augustine was a college campus, she says it was plantations going back to the British period.
The land belonged to Joseph Peavett in the 1700s, and according to her research, he had 28 enslaved people.
In the 1800s, the plantation grew even larger, changing hands to then-owner John Hanson.
"It was known as the largest sugar plantation in the area," Keys said. "It would have been hundreds of acres. He had 75 slaves."
Keys knows this because she did research on the plantations 20 years ago. That’s when she ran the historic Ximinez-Fatio House Museum. Now she's a historic preservationist.
Keys is concerned a new road planned for St. Augustine would be built on or disturb the graves of the enslaved people, most likely buried on the plantation sites.
The new beltway that the Florida Department of Transportation calls State Road 312 would be built west of the Holmes - King intersection. However, Keyes believes the road would mostly likely run over the old plantations.
"I kept expecting some kind of (transportation) report or study to comment of at least one of the plantations with 75 slaves," she said. But she couldn't find any.
"Where was Hanson’s sugar chimney, of which there are two pictures?"
First Coast News asked the Florida Department of Transportation about inspections of the property where the road will be built.
A spokesperson responded: "As normal practice, the Department evaluated the project limits and found no findings of a cemetery."
Keys finds that hard to believe.
"I’ve talked to dozens of historians," Keys said. "I have worked with archaeologists. They say, 'Oh absolutely, there has to have been a graveyard here!'"
She would like there to be a more extensive historical site inspection.
So what if graves are located on the land? What happens then?
"Legally, they should be calling the county archaeologist or medical examiner, and you stop construction," she says. "You get permission to relocate the graves. Ideally, you put them in a cemetery."
She added, "It doesn’t stop the work permanently. It stops the work long enough to do what is required under federal law to not desecrate human graves. I just think this is a piece of our history we need to address and deal with and be honest about before the road goes through," she said.