TAMPA — Three newspaper articles reported on the death of Bessie Williams in 1918, but none focused on the Black woman’s life. There was no mention of her age, survivors or funeral services.
Instead, the stories detailed how clients of the laundry woman could retrieve their garments.
“They cared more about clothes,” said Yvette Lewis, head of the Hillsborough County NAACP. “Because of the color of her skin, they didn’t respect her in life. And they didn’t respect her in death.”
On a February afternoon, Lewis walked the Italian Club Cemetery’s grass lot at 2520 E. 24th Ave. and wondered if Williams’ body was there. Is it under the land used for parking? Is it under a portion that has a mausoleum for Italians?
Records reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times indicate more than 1,200 people — mostly pioneering Black residents of Tampa, some historic figures — might have been buried in the land now devoid of headstones. Nearly all, including Williams, are missing.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. Five erased or lost cemeteries have so far been discovered throughout Tampa Bay over the last few years. Four were for Black people, one was mostly for Black burials. The searches were inspired by Times investigations into the whereabouts of the historic burial grounds, starting with Zion Cemetery in 2019.
With nearly 1,000 burials, Zion had been the largest of the missing cemeteries.
A historic marker at the Italian Club Cemetery begins like this: “L’Unione Italiana, founded in 1894 in Ybor City, institutionalized the Italian funeral in Tampa when in 1896 it purchased this property from the prominent African-American Armwood family and dedicated it as a cemetery.”
But records show the Italian Club did not own cemetery land until 1908 when it bought a sliver of what today makes up the social club’s 5-acre burial ground. And it did not purchase the land from the Armwoods.
That East Tampa land was once six burial sections — spanning that parking lot to the border shared with the Centro Espanol Cemetery — that made up College Hill Cemetery. The Italian Club pieced those together. What were once sections for Black and Cuban burials, confirmed by maps dating to the 1880s, are now covered over by cars or concrete.
Despite the evidence, the Italian Club has not expressed interest in unravelling the mystery, has not acknowledged that its history is incorrect and would not say if it believes forefathers played a role in the erasure of Black and Cuban graves.
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The city of Tampa also played a direct role in the erasure by wrongly levying taxes that took the land from Black owners and gave it back to former white owners.
The NAACP, historians, archaeologists and those with loved ones buried in College Hill Cemetery reviewed the Times’ research and are calling for an archaeological investigation. Are the bodies still there? Or were they moved to parts unknown?
Lewis demands that someone fund ground-penetrating radar across the 1-acre area in the northeast corner of the Italian Club Cemetery.
“If the Italian Club won’t pay for it, the city needs to,” Lewis said. “The city of Tampa cannot deny their involvement. Facts are facts.”
The erasure of the Black and Cuban sections began in the mid-1920s, when the city of Tampa expanded into the College Hill neighborhood and levied new taxes on property owners, so the area could be improved with amenities such as paved roads and sewer systems.
If a property owner could not afford the fees, their land reverted to a previous owner.
This was not a Tampa or Florida-centric process, said Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. It was happening throughout the South.
The Black and Cuban sections were likely no longer profitable by then, as they were primarily burial spots for stillborns and infants. From 1920 through 1935, 350 of the 405 people buried there did not reach their first birthday. That coincides with the 1919 opening of the privately owned Memorial Park Cemetery for Black burials less than a mile away.
The Times could not find how much was levied on the Black and Cuban burial sections, but neighboring College Hill lots were charged between around $300 to $900. The Cuban and Black sections were made up of seven lots.
“But it was a cemetery,” Moates said. “They are usually seen as properties that are exempt from taxes.”
In 1926, the Randall family, which initially sold land to Black businessmen for a burial section, owned the property again.
That was the same year that Zion Cemetery — the erased Black cemetery found in 2019 beneath Tampa’s Robles Park Village housing project — reverted from Black owners to the daughter of the land’s white homesteader. She then sold Zion and its debt to a white developer, HP Kennedy, who removed the headstones but not the bodies. He built storefronts and homes over the graves.
Kennedy would later have Zion’s back taxes waived by the city because it was a cemetery.
“The acts effectively erased Zion from view,” Moates said. “The city’s policies allowed it to occur. The same practice looks to be true at College Hill. Is it possible whoever owned College Hill Cemetery at that time may not have been registered as a religious-oriented or private nonprofit? Absolutely. This may have also been the case for the owners of Zion. But that doesn’t clear with what they — the city — did for Kennedy. Was he registered as a religious or nonprofit entity at that time? It’s possible, but unlikely.”
By the 1920s, the Italian Club used the lot behind the Black and Cuban sections for its burials. It, too, had taxes on that land waived by the city.
The Randalls sold the Black and Cuban sections to A.M. Fort, who was in the produce industry. Fort then allowed the Italian Club to use parts of the Black and Cuban sections.
The modern-day Italian Club Cemetery is divided into 28 zones.
Zones 11 through 13 were still part of the Cuban and Black sections in 1927 but, beginning that year, the Italian Club buried members in that sliver of land. Through 1944, when the Forts sold the land to Nick Nuccio, 29 Italians were buried there.
Nuccio — a member of the Italian Club and a future Tampa mayor — and his wife purchased the property just three years after federal employees physically documented the existence of a cemetery there. They were searching for veterans buried across the country.
“How could he not have known it was a cemetery?” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, by then, the Italian Club also had purchased the area of College Hill Cemetery between the Black and Cuban sections and Centro Espanol Cemetery and previously owned by three undertakers. While those sections were not only for Italians, they rebranded them as part of the Italian Club Cemetery.
The Black and Cuban sections became overgrown with grass, weeds and trees, and the Italian Club bought that piece of land in 1950.
By 2001, the Italian Club also owned the neighboring S.M.S. Italia Cemetery, originally founded by a Sicilian social club. This completed the formation of what is today the boundaries of the Italian Club Cemetery.
Via email and then a phone call, the Times explained to a city spokesperson how a past administration played a role in the erasure of Black cemeteries and asked if the city would pay for the archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery’s lot and accept any responsibility for past actions.
Mayor Jane Castor’s office sent the following statement:
“We are troubled to learn of the historical inequities Black landowners in our community faced during this oppressive era. We must acknowledge and own these injustices to prevent them from occurring in the future.”
Castor then said the city would continue work to improve the lives of today’s Black residents. But she stopped short of saying whether the city would pay for the survey. Nor did she offer what Lewis has been requesting since Zion Cemetery was discovered two years ago — an apology on behalf of the city.
The Times also shared the results of all of its research with the Italian Club during an in-person meeting on March 4 and explained that a past effort to survey that lot for lost graves might have been conducted incorrectly.
The Italian Club paid for it to be scanned with ground-penetrating radar in 2005 when it considered erecting a second mausoleum on the site. The survey report — which the Italian Club provided to the Times — indicates no graves were found. The second mausoleum was never built.
Moates said a second survey is warranted.
The first only surveyed a third of the grassy lot, he said, and “the methods used in that scanning operation aren’t conducive to investigating historic cemeteries.”
The radar was rolled east-west rather than north-south, as it should have been, Moates said, and they scanned in rows too far apart.
So, Moates said, “it would be more difficult to find graves.”
If there are no graves, a second survey could tell if they were once there but moved. Artifacts could indicate when graves were dug up. If graves were never there, Moates said, archaeologists and historians should learn why a paper trail says they were.
The Times emailed the Italian Club seven follow-up questions, including whether it will allow an archaeological survey, why its cemetery history is wrong and whether past leaders played a role in erasing Black and Cuban graves.
The club, which was founded more than a century ago as a mutual aid society for Italian immigrants and now serves as a 700-member organization that honors Tampa’s Italian heritage, did not answer those questions.
Instead, it emailed this statement in April:
“The Italian Club Cemetery is overseen by volunteers who maintain and preserve the history, culture, and heritage of the cemetery and the families that rest there. The Italian Club Cemetery embraces the African American community including those families that rest in our cemetery. We do not have records that indicate that anyone is buried in our cemetery other than the families on our registry. We will, as we always have done, honor and respect the families who lie in our cemetery and tell the story as we best understand it to be.”
But records exist.
The Times first wrote about College Hill Cemetery in November 2019.
And when the Italian Club did not seek answers, the Times, with help, continued to investigate the mystery of the cemetery lost within a cemetery.
Moates’ archaeology network, the Tampa Bay History Center and cemetery researchers Henry Echezabal and Ray Reed assisted in combing through tens of thousands of pages of historic documents dating to the 1800s.
On March 5, the Times emailed the Italian Club copies of the records.
One record is a click away.
The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website includes a link to a property’s plat, which is how it was originally mapped. For the Italian Club Cemetery property, the appraiser link is for a “colored cemetery” where the parking lot and mausoleum are now located.
Lewis, of the NAACP, said she was startled by the Italian Club’s statement considering the cemeteries that have been discovered throughout Tampa Bay over the last few years.
“It’s not shocking news anymore,” she said. “It shouldn’t be hard to believe. The city did not care about the African American community. That’s why this kept happening. No one had the power to stop it. We need to get to the bottom of this. If the bodies are there, we need to know. If they are not, where are they?”
Cemetery researcher Reed found 811 death certificates for College Hill Cemetery.
Angela Alderman’s great uncle Frank Martinez was among the Cubans buried there. Her family has been searching for the cemetery for more than a decade.
She hopes the Italian Club dedicates resources to learning the truth.
“It is a matter of respect and healing for those individuals and the families who loved them,” she said.
The list of the dead also includes Salome Oliva, a prominent tobacco importer from Cuba, and Nathaniel Ward, a leader in Black civic organizations.
In the search for records identifying those buried in College Hill Cemetery, both Reed and the Times found death certificates and obituaries for the closely named Cottage Hill Cemetery.
Historians contacted by the Times had not heard of Cottage Hill — the cemetery or neighborhood — despite it being mentioned in news archives from 1898 through 1959.
The Friends of the Riverwalk website, which includes information on the historic figures with busts along the downtown Riverwalk, also lists Cottage Hill primary school as where Black educator Blanche Armwood was principal.
Cottage Hill was either the same community as College Hill or neighbored it.
Bonita Subdivision, next to the Randalls’ College Hill subdivision, was once considered part of Cottage Hill. Realtors once placed Cottage Hill in the same area as College Hill. And both Cottage and College Hill’s school identification number was 17.
If they are the same but with the different names, why?
“College Hill is built on a lie,” said Fred Hearns, the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history. The Randalls promised to bring a Black college to their subdivision if Black families from throughout the nation purchased land there.
“That’s where the name College came from. The Hill came from the elevation,” Hearns said.
By 1927, College Hill had a population of nearly 4,100 Black residents. But the college was never built. Did some refuse to call the neighborhood College Hill and gave it the second name Cottage Hill?
“We might never know,” Hearns said. “It’s a mystery.”
Cottage Hill and College Hill cemeteries seem to be the same.
There is no Cottage Hill Cemetery on maps or in city directories.
The only mention of its location is a 1927 newspaper article about a man who killed his stepdaughter. Jacob Gilbert buried the body in Cottage Hill Cemetery, identified as a Black cemetery located “half a mile” from his house. Gilbert lived at 2712 12th Ave., which was around half a mile from College Hill Cemetery.
Reed found 453 death certificates for Cottage Hill.
Among the more prominent people buried there was E.V. West, one of Tampa’s first Black doctors. It is also listed on laundress Williams’ death certificate.
Overall, for both cemeteries, Reed found 1,264 death certificates.
There were likely more. Reed’s numbers span 1904 to 1935, but only four death certificates date prior to 1910, an era when death records were not always filed.
The Times found 63 obituaries, spanning 1896 to 1909, that mention College Hill or Cottage Hill cemeteries, with the most prominent being for Robert Meacham, a man once enslaved who later became a state senator prior to Jim Crow. Meacham’s obituary from 1902 lists College Hill Cemetery as his burial place.
Tampa Tribune reporter Leland Hawes and historian Cantor Brown unsuccessfully went looking for Meacham’s grave in the 1980s. According to a letter from the late Hawes that Brown provided to the Times, College Hill Cemetery “merged into the Italian cemetery.”
Reed provided the Times with his list of death certificate numbers plus other data — including ages and race. The Times verified the death certificates.
According to the Times’ count, 943 of those buried were Black, 321 were white and 726 were stillborn or did not reach their first birthday, which Moates said explains how more than 1,200 burials could fit on one acre. Death records sometimes list a nation of birth but do not always list a specific nationality, so it is unclear how many of the white burials were Cuban.
The Times then pulled 350 of the death records, focusing on those more likely to have been moved — older children and adults — and those with the most legible names.
The Times then entered those names into modern-day cemetery databases and found the whereabouts of just seven. News archives were searched for a mention of a mass reinterment of College Hill or Cottage Hill cemeteries with no results.
Of the seven with known whereabouts, four are in Woodlawn Cemetery and one is in Memorial Park Cemetery.
The other two are in the Italian Club Cemetery. Those — listed as College Hill Cemetery burials — belong to Levin Armwood (died 1921) and Cynthia Holloman (died 1915), who was an Armwood cousin. Both were Black, and their families were prominent landowners, educators and law enforcement officers.
As further evidence that College Hill and Cottage Hill cemeteries are the same, the Armwoods buried a stillborn in Cottage Hill Cemetery in 1918.
A 1938 aerial photograph provides the first look at the land where the Black and Cuban sections were located. It is a heavily wooded area, so headstones are not visible. Sandy paths cut through it. Moates said that was a typical layout for early 20th century Black cemeteries.
By the time the federal government documented College Hill Cemetery in 1941, that grass lot was all that was left of the cemetery that once spanned acres. The report says there were no veterans buried there.
The same year Nuccio purchased the property, he sold it to Joseph S. Puglisi. There were two Tampa men with that name in 1944, according to news archives. One was married to Nuccio’s niece.
A photograph from 1948 of a funeral held in the Italian Club Cemetery directly behind the Black and Cuban sections shows that lot is fenced off. It is too overgrown with grass and weeds to tell if there are markers, but there appears to be a trailer parked on it.
By 1950, the property was split between Puglisi and Paul DiPietra, who sold their lots to the Italian Club.
A 1957 aerial photo of that area shows it was still populated with trees. It was cleared by 1968, according to another aerial that shows no sign of a cemetery there. The mausoleum was constructed in the 1970s.
Hearns recalls riding his bike past the Italian Club Cemetery as a teenager living nearby.
Born in 1948, Hearns often wondered why there was an Italian cemetery in the historically Black neighborhood but not one for Black residents.
“I wondered, before Memorial Cemetery opened, where were they buried?” Hearns said. “I think now we know. Next, we need to learn what happened to them. Where did those bodies go?”
Lewis of the NAACP echoed that question, specifically wondering where Williams, the laundry woman, was buried.
One news story on Williams’ death from the flu is written jokingly.
“Tampa Housewives Sing New Song If Wash Is Missing,” reads the Tampa Tribune headline. The article then says, “Where Is My Wandering Wash Tonight wails family after family of Tampans. Since the flu arrived there has been weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth among proletariat and elite.”
Upon being read the article, Lewis rubbed her eyes.
“Someone needs to make this right,” she said. “This is not going away. I will not let it go away.”
Facts in this story come from articles and legal advertisements found on newspapers.com, genealogy records available on familysearch.org, maps from the Tampa Bay History Center’s collection, archived Tampa City Council minutes from the early 20th century, the Italian Club Cemetery’s online database, land deeds available through the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court, the University of South Florida’s Special Collections files on Ybor City’s social clubs, and the federal government’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration files.
Correction: An earlier version of this story was incorrect about where information about Blanche Armwood was found.