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Slavery robbed identities from many buried at Oaklawn. There are moves now to honor them.

Historian Fred Hearns would like the city of Tampa to commemorate the unknown African-Americans who were buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in the mid-1800s.  [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Historian Fred Hearns would like the city of Tampa to commemorate the unknown African-Americans who were buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in the mid-1800s. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Aug. 9, 2019|Updated Jan. 13, 2020

TAMPA — One tale often told from historic Oaklawn Cemetery is about common-law couple William and Nancy Ashley.

William was white, Nancy black, and they fell in love during slavery times when their romance was illegal and taboo.

So William Ashley, Tampa's first city clerk and the namesake of downtown's entryway, called Nancy his slave at first, and later, his servant.

"That was her protection," said Fred Hearns, who chronicles Tampa's African-American history. "No one was going to bother his property."

William Ashley died in 1873 and in his will, he provided for Nancy to be buried with him in Oaklawn.

Months later, she died. She remains the only African-American buried in the cemetery's white section. On the shared grave's marker, she is called a servant.

RELATED: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Less well known, Hearns said, is the small area of the city-owned cemetery where slaves were buried. No one knows how many. A small, flat marker was placed at the burial placed 40 years ago but it’s easy to miss and offers no history.

Now, Hearns wants the story told.

He is asking the city to install a larger historic marker and to hold a ceremony every year honoring the people whose forced labor helped build the community of Tampa.

"It is easy to talk about the enslaved in Mississippi and Alabama," Hearns said. "But it happened here in Tampa too and most know next to nothing about it. We can start by honoring the enslaved buried in Oaklawn."

For some time, Hearns has wanted their story told but he figured no one would listen.

He changed his mind because of the widespread response to a Tampa Bay Times report about Zion Cemetery — a burial ground for hundreds of African-Americans the early 1900s that disappeared from the public eye. Efforts now are under way to determine whether bodies still are buried at the site along the 3700 block of North Florida Avenue in Tampa.

RELATED: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

"This is the first time this city seems to care about black burials," Hearns said. "Let's see how much."

Hearns estimates 100 people were enslaved in Tampa when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed in 1865. They were not counted in tallies that showed Tampa's population at the time was around 800, he said.

"They were forced to work on farms and in the homes and build the buildings. I can't think of a human condition worse than slavery. You are doomed to work all your life to enrich someone else."

The last major tribute to the enslaved people buried at Oaklawn was in 1978, Hearns said.

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That's when the Heights Garden Circle had the marker placed over the burial site.

Made of granite, flat against the ground, it reads, "To the slaves buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. In peace sleep on God's hands. Each broken heart will mend."

Said Hearns, "It is a good tribute. But we can do more."

Oaklawn was established in 1850 as Tampa's first public cemetery.

The first person buried there was an enslaved person — the possession of mayor-to-be John T. Lesley.

"It was the timing," explained Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell. "It was a new cemetery and the first person to die got to be the first person buried."

A separate gravestone in Oaklawn's African-American section chronicles the death: "Negro slave who belonged to Lesley family."

There is no name or gender. Nor does it stand atop the actual burial site. The marker was placed later by historians who wanted to note the burial.

There are a few other symbolic markers at Oaklawn, too. One reads, "Adam a black slave lynched Dec. 16, 1859."

Acquitted in the slaying of a white farmer, Adam was punished anyway.

"His story is tragic," Hearns said. "But at least we know his story. What about the others?"

The enslaved were either buried without headstones or with cheap wooden markers destroyed by the elements over time, Hearns said. Cemetery records were lost during the Civil War.

Two years ago, University of South Florida anthropologist Thomas Pluckhahn led an effort to scan Oaklawn for lost graves.

The search confirmed unmarked burials in the section for enslaved people but tree roots made it difficult for ground penetrating radar to map distinct plots and place individual markers.

"A better solution," Pluckhahn said, "might be to bound off that area with a nice iron fence and put in a better interpretive marker."

Whatever gets done, Hearns hopes elected officials will lead the effort.

"If we can get sponsors for Gasparilla to honor a fake pirate," Hearns said, "we can find ways to honor our real history."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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