Nestled among the bustling activity of downtown Tampa, the steady drone of bus engines at the Marion Transit Center and the din of traffic on Interstate 275 you will find one of the most historic and important areas of Tampa.
It's not a neighborhood, an office building or a church. Its occupants rest silently, though some of their stories yell out from Tampa's past. The place? Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa's oldest public burying ground.
Oaklawn was carved out of the wilderness at the northernmost part of the Village of Tampa. The mission of the public cemetery to receive "white and slave, rich and poor" has been more than fulfilled, as Oaklawn is the final resting place for a former Florida governor, several former mayors, veterans of eight wars, tenant farmers, slaves and everyone in between.
The most poignant representation of the mission is the shared grave of William and Nancy Ashley, who were both master and slave and husband and wife.
When it received its first internment in 1850, the cemetery was almost half a mile away from the main part of town. History records that a young African-American woman, a slave who belonged to the Lesley Family, was the first person laid to rest at Oaklawn.
Though there is no marker for the Lesley family slave, there are two modern stones that mark burials from the cemetery's first year. One is for Jose "El Indio" Perfino, who was hanged — likely at the hands of angry or vengeful townspeople — sometime in 1850.
The other marks the final resting place for a Captain Hubbard, who met a more anonymous, if not glorious, end. His body, according to the modern headstone, was found in the woods on June 18, 1850. Both Perfino and Hubbard are identified as "Cuban pirates."
Tampa became a city in 1853, and Oaklawn served as its northern border. The city and its cemetery were still quite young during the Civil War. Fortunately for the residents of Tampa, the war was far enough away that its carnage did not add greatly to the numbers of internments at Oaklawn.
What war did not do to the numbers at Oaklawn, disease more than made up for. Yellow fever epidemics swept through Tampa in the late 1860s, through the 1870s, and into the 1880s. One of the worst of these was also the last, hitting the city in 1887 and lingering into 1888. The number of deaths combined with the lack of knowledge of how the disease spread led to the creation of a mass grave for yellow fever victims. That mass grave is in an area just to the west of the Sexton's House.
Despite the continued use of the cemetery, and its connection to Tampa's pioneer past, Oaklawn began to fall into disrepair just as the city was beginning to grow. As early as 1895, articles began to appear in the Tampa Tribune about the poor condition of Oaklawn. Efforts were made by the Ladies Relief Society to raise money so a worker could be hired to cut the grass, trim the trees, and fix the fence to keep roaming cows from going into the cemetery.
The attention and work paid off, and in 1910 the city enhanced Oaklawn by adding the current Sexton's House (originally called the Pavilion) and paving the two streets that cut the cemetery into quarters. Gravesites were also better maintained and the respect and reverence owed to Oaklawn returned. That did not last, however, and the cemetery began a steady decline.
Over the last 100 years, Oaklawn and the adjacent St. Louis Catholic Cemetery have experienced periods of both attention and neglect. Regular burials began to tail off by the 1910s, and by the 1950s the cemetery was completely ignored. Through the efforts of Julius "Jeff" Gordon, Oaklawn enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s, which was encouraged (and, in part, funded) by the Tampa Historical Society.
The city of Tampa ultimately agreed to take a greater role in the cemetery's upkeep, which is a de facto city park, but the past 10 years have not been kind to Oaklawn.
The St. Petersburg Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church raised money to repair the brick receiving vault, which was built in 1895, in the St. Louis Cemetery that resides on the north end of Oaklawn. The Sexton's House is in great need of repair, and the city is currently looking for funding to complete those repairs. Time is not on Oaklawn's side. Forces of nature combined with the worst of human nature have contributed to a great deal of damage within the walls of both Oaklawn and St. Louis. The best of human nature can still save them.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. Contact Kite-Powell at [email protected] or call (813) 228-0097.