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Tampa saved a century-old Black cemetery after its owner died

Memorial Park Cemetery’s owner died in 2019 and his heirs divested themselves of it. The city has since taken over maintenance.
A pedestrian is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair.
A pedestrian is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published May 13

TAMPA — Memorial Park Cemetery looks better tended without an active owner than when it had one.

The century-old, segregation-era Black cemetery’s former owner, John Robinson, cared for the 20 acres on his own, a job he admitted was difficult. Overgrown tree branches dipped to the ground and covered sections of graves. Burial records were a mess.

He died in July 2019 and willed to family the cemetery that is the final resting place to more than 6,000, including historic figures. But the heirs didn’t want it and divested themselves of Memorial Park, located at 2225 E. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The city immediately took on the maintenance but refused long-term responsibility, filing lawsuits against Robinson’s estate to recoup expenses and stop the divestment.

Last fall, the city settled with the estate for a fraction of what they have spent and now accepts that caring for the cemetery is unofficially its responsibility for the foreseeable future, despite it having a new owner.

“This is an opportunity to serve the public,” said Ocea Wynn, Tampa’s neighborhood and community affairs administrator. “We’re concentrating on doing the right thing and the right thing is preserving the cemetery and paying homage and respect to those interred here.”

Still, stressed Wynn, “We do not own the cemetery.”

City of Tampa neighborhood and community affairs administrator Ocea Wynn is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair.
City of Tampa neighborhood and community affairs administrator Ocea Wynn is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website, in February 2020, Robinson’s niece Wendy Scolaro conveyed the cemetery deed to a Delaware-based real estate holding company — Carriage Holdings LLC.

The Tampa Bay Times left two messages at the listed phone number for Carriage Holdings without a response.

City attorney Gina Grimes said the company was “not interested” in maintaining the cemetery.

So, it has fallen to the city.

Under the city’s care, the cemetery has not looked this good in decades. The grass is cut regularly, and the trees have been trimmed, providing access to every grave. Liquor and beer bottles that once littered the grounds are regularly cleared.

The community has taken notice.

Flowers on graves were once sparse. But, in recent months, flowers have been placed throughout the cemetery, bringing color to the once depressing property.

“We have been getting compliments and attaboys,” Wynn said. “People are taking notice.”

The maintenance was initially split between the city and volunteers. But volunteers lost interest and it became too much for the city to add to a full-time to-do list that includes maintenance of four city-owned cemeteries, Wynn said. So, the city hired private contractors.

The city has spent approximately $42,000 on Memorial Park, Wynn said. The Robinson estate paid $5,000 via the settlement, Grimes said.

City of Tampa Attorney Gina Grimes is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair.
City of Tampa Attorney Gina Grimes is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

But Grimes said they received something more valuable than the money. “We wanted the burial records.”

Those records came in boxes, some dating back nearly a century and handwritten in notebooks. The city is now making sense of and digitizing those records so that they know who owns which empty plots.

Since Robinson’s death, funeral homes have been helping families with burials, Grimes said.

They city also hopes the records detail where each existing burial is located, possibly even the unmarked ones.

Last June, after surveying 10 percent of the cemetery’s open land with ground-penetrating radar, the Florida Public Archaeology Network estimated there are hundreds of graves without headstones, possibly filling nearly every empty area.

“We are thinking of making this a community resource, an asset,” Grimes said. “We want to pinpoint the locations of specific graves” so that residents can visit the burial sites of historic figures.

Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa.
Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

From its opening in 1919 through desegregation, Memorial Park was the primary cemetery for Tampa’s Black residents.

Richard Doby’s grave is among those lost that the city hopes to locate through the records. Considered one of Tampa’s pioneering Black leaders, he helped establish two early communities for Black residents — Robles Pond, which was located around the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave., and a Hyde Park suburb called Dobyville.

Negro League Baseball star Humberto Arenas’ mausoleum is among the more prominent marked burials.

There is also a section for World War I veterans moved there after the cemetery opened.

A monument to the veterans buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa.
A monument to the veterans buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Robinson’s family purchased the cemetery in 1929. He inherited it from his mother and died at 66.

The city contends that they will not become the permanent caretakers. It plans on helping to establish a nonprofit to take over maintenance responsibilities and possibly ownership.

The nonprofit could petition for access to a $200,000 cemetery maintenance trust that Robinson established with the state. Grimes said the city is not interested in recouping its expenditures from that fund.

Grimes said the city stabilized the cemetery. “Now the question is, what is the best situation for it over the next 10, 20, 30 years?”