TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE -- Massalina.
The name evokes images of large white southern magnolia blooms over acres of farmland, sounds of rafters of wild turkeys ripping through the pines and the scent of salty, yet humid air carrying the raspy voice of Jose Masslieno over the banks of Redfish Point as he calls his son Narcissco -- nicknamed "Hawk" -- to fetch a bundle of oak tree firewood.
Descendant of the Masslieno father and son, Lyn Masslieno, planted his own feet on that same ground Friday as experts spoke about the history buried at the Massalina Cemetery on Tyndall Air Force Base, formerly Redfish Point.
"I always heard the stories, about how they would cross the bay to go get supplies, about how they were boat builders, how they were community builders, how they were church planters," Masslieno said Friday morning at a media event spotlighting the historically black cemetery and settlement at the base. "But to be able to be here onsite where I know my ancestors built churches, built schools and settled in the community, it makes me feel proud to be a part of a legacy that I want to move forward in Panama City."
Massalina and Massleno are a variation of Masslieno, the original Spanish surname. Marine merchant Jose Masslieno jumped ship on a boat traveling from Cuba to Florida in 1836 and settled at what would become Tyndall Air Force Base.
"This is the early 1830s," said Archaeologist Ilaria Harrach, the Cultural Resources Program Manager at Eglin Installation Support Section of Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which oversees cultural resources at Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base. "During the Civil War, most people who were residents here left after old town St. Andrews burned during the conflicts between the Union and the Confederates."
"But, he stayed," she said of Jose Masslieno. "Eventually, after the Civil War, he got married and went to Georgia. From what we know, he invited 40 families to join him down here and built his homestead in 1866."
Harrach stood near the headstone of Bell Massaleno, Hawk's wife who died in 1911 at 55 years old. According to officials onsite, Hawk hadn't experienced slavery, however, he traveled to Georgia to purchase Bell -- freeing her -- and bring her to the homestead.
"And they stayed here for decades until WWII, when Tyndall Air Force Base acquired the land. These families had to move," Harrach said. "We are here to commemorate those families' efforts. There was a church, a school; and we know the Massalina family helped to build the school, the cemetery and the first baptist church."
Massalina Cemetery is the oldest of all of the 11 grave sites at Tyndall and is one of the four cemeteries started by black families. Officials said teams using ground-penetrating technology located dozens of graves or bodies at Massalina Cemetery, however, only Bell's was marked with a headstone.
Post-Hurricane Michael restoration efforts at the cemeteries were carried out without any machinery and with oversight by an archaeologist, assuring none of the sites were disturbed, officials said.
"The storm took out a lot of trees and most of our cemeteries are in remote areas. We had to cut access roads into them just to be able to get access to it," said Major Gavin Brost, 325th Civil Engineering Squadron Operations Flight Commander. "We started carefully removing downed trees inside of the cemeteries. Once we got it cleaned up enough, we executed a contract to tear out the old fence that got destroyed at all 11 cemeteries."
"There was a beautiful kind of canopy over the cemetery," Brost added, speaking specifically about Massalina Cemetery.
With the new fencing in place, roots and stomps still remain upbraided and large trees continue to lean. Officials said teams decided to allow the landscape to stay that way pending more research about the cemetery itself and where grave sites are located.
History professor at Florida State University -- Panama City Robert Cvornyek was invited to the media event. He will be instrumental in preserving the history of the cemetery and commemorating the living history of the Massalina family and local black community.
"In June of 1941, the African American community at Redfish Point was forced to leave here to make way for Tyndall Air Force Base," he said. "During that time period, men and women made sacrifices. They went into the armed services, they worked in defense-related industries."
"But some communities took an extra special sacrifice," he said. "And that was clearly the community here at Redfish Point. They left their homes, they left their churches, they left their cemeteries."
Cvornyek said the cemetery offers a unique opportunity, "but also a big challenge because the history is incomplete." He plans to explore nontraditional ways to acquire the information needed to complete that history, he noted.
And Masslieno is a part of that completion of history.
As the great-grandson of Hawk Masslieno, nothing meant more to him Friday than walking in the literal footsteps of his forefathers and mothers.
"It means a lot," he said with a pause. "This is the first time I have had the opportunity to visit this particular grave site. And to be at the grave site of my great-grandmother is emotional, it's also nostalgic."
"I also feel proud to be a part of the legacy and the heritage that's here at Redfish Point, that my ancestors helped to create," he added.
The future of the research at the historic cemetery of the Massalina community is something Masslieno plans to be a part of, he said.
Tyndall Air Force Base permits qualified individuals to visit the base for recreational purposes, such as for visitation at historical sites, including cemeteries. To apply, go to tyndall.isportsman.net.
This article is written by Jacqueline Bostick from The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.