Tampa buys Black cemetery for $100,000 after accidentally losing it

The segregation-era Black cemetery was established in 1919 and abandoned in 2019.
The City of Tampa has agreed to buy this segregation-era Black cemetery.
The City of Tampa has agreed to buy this segregation-era Black cemetery. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published May 4|Updated May 4

TAMPA — Tampa City Council unanimously agreed today to purchase Memorial Park Cemetery for $100,000.

The owner of the segregation-era Black cemetery died in 2019 and it then became abandoned. The city began caring for it but recently placed a lien on the 104-year-old cemetery for part of what they were owed for maintenance, knowing it would be foreclosed upon and then available to purchase at a public auction conducted by the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts.

But they did not pay attention to the online auction and lost the 20-acres burial ground to property flipper Alex Arteaga, who won with an $18,000 bid. He previously said he spent a total of $30,000 on the purchase, which included paying the city the $9,862 they were owed for the lien.

The city agreed to purchase it from Arteaga following an appraisal, said Nicole Travis, the city’s administrator of development and economic opportunity.

She estimates that Tampa will spend an additional $30,000 per year on maintenance of the cemetery. Plus, the city is awaiting an estimate on installing an iron or aluminum fence with brick pillars around the fence and will place a historic marker or monument there that tells the cemetery’s story.

Overall, Travis said, the city has already spent around $200,000 on maintaining the cemetery since 2019, despite not owning it.

Next up, is figuring out who is buried there.

The burials at the city’s other four cemeteries are documented online.

The Florida Genealogical Society once walked the Memorial Park and documented nearly 6,000 headstones. Those include veterans dating to World War I.

But, in 2020, archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to determine that most of the open spaces have unmarked graves.

The city is now in possession of 15,000 burial records that they must go through to determine who might be buried where, said Ocea Wynn, Tampa’s neighborhood and community affairs administrator. “It is not going to be an overnight process. We have a team working on that.”

Since the city lost the cemetery in the auction, those with family buried there have regularly expressed anger and fear over a property flipper owning the cemetery.

“An apology to the families,” Councilman Guido Maniscalco said. “Sorry that it got to this.”

Tampa City Council then celebrated the purchase.

Councilman Bill Carlson said the purchase shows the city’s “combined commitment to respect the people who are there.”

Councilwoman Gwendolyn “Gwen” Henderson, whose East Tampa district includes the cemetery, said: “Now we can have the opportunity to pay homage and respect.”