The Italian Club says their cemetery at 2520 E. 24th Ave. was established in 1896, but maps, land deeds and federal records say otherwise.
The five-acre Italian Club Cemetery was once College Hill Cemetery that was broken up into six burial sections with different owners. The Italian Club began purchasing those sections in 1908 and over time converted that land into the Italian Club Cemetery. During that process, more than 1,200 bodies went missing.
Here is the timeline of events that led to the disappearance of the College Hill Cemetery:
Horace Thomas, a colonel for the Union Army during the Civil War, homesteads 160 acres in Hillsborough County that includes the property that is now the Italian Club Cemetery.
The first known burial on the land occurs on April 9, before any cemetery was officially established. The headstone for 1-year-old Henry Armwood is still there — though it is unclear if the marker is an original. Perhaps that burial is why the Italian Club thought the Armwoods once owned the land.
Allen and Mary Randall file a plat for Randall’s Subdivision, an area the document also identifies as the College Hill neighborhood. Then located outside city limits, College Hill’s modern-day boundaries are 26th Avenue to the south, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, 29th Street to the east and 15th Street to the west.
In all, the Randalls owned 80 acres of Thomas’ homesteaded land, but it is unclear from whom or when they purchased it.
A plat for “Cuban Cemetery” is filed. Overlaying that plat onto a modern map places the cemetery on the front half of the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot and a piece of land where Italian are buried today. It is unclear who operated that burial section. Ybor City’s Cuban Club for immigrants from that nation was not founded until 1902.
The Randalls sell land to the “Nickle Club of Tampa for colored people,” a social club for Tampa’s Black residents. Club officers were prominent Black businessmen Isaac Howard and Henry Hopkins and Black undertaker Henry Blair.
The Nickle Club files a plat for a Black burial section. Overlaying it onto a modern map places the cemetery on what is today the back bottom corner of the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot, under a portion of the mausoleum, a piece of land where Italians are buried today.
The Italian Club is founded as a mutual aid society for Italian immigrants.
The Centro Espanol purchases land for their cemetery at 2504 E. 21st Ave that, according to their history book, neighbored College Hill Cemetery. Their history book does not mention the Italian Club Cemetery, which today neighbors the Centro Espanol Cemetery. Centro Espanol’s 1904 minutes — handwritten in cursive and Spanish — say they bought the property from JM Tucker.
The property located between the Italian Club’s modern grass parking lot and the Centro Espanol Cemetery is three burial sections owned by JM Tucker, JL Reed and EE Cone, who purchased his land directly neighboring Centro Espanol’s Cemetery from Tucker.
Obituaries mention burials in an Italian Cemetery in College Hill, but do not attribute it to the Italian Club. Nor do the obituaries mention where it was located, but the undertaker was typically Cone. Through 1907, 20 of the 21 burials in Cone’s section were Italians. The exception was Spanish.
The Italian Club makes their first cemetery land purchase, buying JL Reed’s burial section.
The first newspaper reference to the Italian Club Cemetery that the Tampa Bay Times found.
The city of Tampa expands into the College Hill neighborhood and levies improvement taxes on the property owners. Those who could not pay had their land taken and reverted to a previous owner who could.
The Randall family again owns the land where the Cuban and Black sections are located. They then sell it to A.M. Fort, who allows Italian burials on some of that land.
Through this year, land the Italian Club purchased in 1908 was the primary burial spot for Italians - 104 of 111 burials in what today is the Italian Club Cemetery were in that sliver.
By this year, Italian Club also owns the property behind what is now the grass parking lot and mausoleum and used it for burials. The Times could not find the sales record or its previous use, but, in the early 1900s, it was owned by H.H. Lightburn, who was Black.
The Italian Club purchases JL Tucker’s burial section.
The Times could not find a sales deed for the Italian Club’s purchase of Cone’s section.
A map still includes the Cuban section but does not place the Black section on that property.
The last year of recorded burials in College Hill Cemetery
The federal government released a report on the locations of veterans’ graves throughout the United States and provides directions to each site they visited. The directions to College Hill Cemetery leads to what is today the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot.
Nick Nucco and his wife Concetta purchase the lot and sell it to Joseph Puglisi.
The Italian Club purchases the lot from Joseph Puglisi and Paul DiPietra.
The lot is clear of its trees. Aerial photographs show no sign of markers.
A mausoleum is built on the lot.
By this year, the Italian Club owns the neighboring S.M.S. Italia Cemetery, which was platted in 1925 and originally owned by a Sicilian social club.
The Italian Club pays for its cemetery parking lot to be scanned with ground-penetrating radar in 2005 when considering erecting a second mausoleum on the site. The survey report indicates no graves were found. The second mausoleum is never built.
The Times publishes a report detailing how College Hill Cemetery might be located under the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot and a mausoleum. The club does not act.
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.