TAMPA — When Elease Carpenter, her brother and cousin realized that city workers had stopped digging an East Tampa retention pond and that no one was guarding the massive hole, they did what kids do.
“We climbed in,” the 54-year-old Carpenter said with a laugh.
What happened next wasn’t childhood fun. They wondered if they’d descended into hell, she said.
“There were bones everywhere,” Carpenter said. “It looked like a mass grave.”
That retention pond is still there, on the corner of 25th Avenue and 26th Street, neighboring the Italian Club Cemetery’s grassy parking lot that a Tampa Bay Times investigation concluded was the location of Black and Cuban burial sections from the erased College Hill Cemetery.
More than 1,200 bodies, all possibly buried in those sections from the late-1800s through 1930s, are missing.
“Were those bodies from that cemetery?” asked her brother Anthony Wilson, 52, of Tampa.
Old maps, land deeds, plats and a federal report say the two burial sections were where the Italian Club Cemetery parking lot and a mausoleum are now located.
While it is “possible” that “all those historic documents are wrong” and the cemetery was located one block over, “it is not very likely,” Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, said.
“It is my understanding, based on those documents, that the cemetery was in the extreme northeast corner of what is today the Italian Club Cemetery. That is where the parking lot is today.”
That land was last identified as part of College Hill Cemetery in 1942. The Italian Club purchased it in 1950.
It’s possible that the retention pond land was home to East Tampa’s erased Cottage Hill Cemetery. Of the 1,264 missing graves, 811 had death certificates listing College Hill Cemetery as their place of burial. The other 453 listed Cottage Hill Cemetery.
Cottage Hill Cemetery is not on maps or listed in city directories. But Times’ research indicates it was the same burial ground as College Hill Cemetery.
It is unclear why the cemetery would have two names.
Another possibility is that someone at some time ordered the bodies from the Black and Cuban sections to be dug up and moved to the neighboring lot.
That aligns with a tip the Times received in December. College Hill Cemetery bodies, the tipster told the Times, were moved to the land that later became the retention pond.
Because the tipster did not want their name attached to the tip and because it could not be verified with another source, the Times did not include it in the original report.
An archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot could say if bodies were there but moved.
Carpenter estimated she was 12 or 13 when they found the “mass grave,” putting the year at 1978 or 1979.
“It didn’t look like we were in a cemetery,” said Carpenter, who now lives in New Port Richey. “There didn’t seem to be graves that were dug up. There were just bones scattered everywhere.”
Her cousin, she said, counted 12 skulls in “one small area.”
They saw coffin hinges, but no coffin wood or grave markers.
Carpenter believes the hole was 12 feet deep, but her brother thinks it was shallower.
“We were so small,” he said. “What could have been 6 feet could have seemed like 12.”
An adult screamed for them to get out of the hole, Carpenter said, and explained that the city had stopped work until they figured out what to do with the bones.
It was summertime, Carpenter said. They lived in Ybor City but often rode their bikes into East Tampa to visit family. They returned to that retention pond during each trip that summer. Digging resumed, but the siblings do not know if the bones were moved.
The siblings were unaware of the history of the retention pond, but their story matches it.
The city purchased 10 East Tampa blocks for the retention pond in 1974, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
An aerial photograph from 1976 shows that land had yet to be cleared, while one from 1980 shows the retention pond.
The city of Tampa sent the Times a schematic of the retention pond overlaid onto a map of how that area looked prior to being cleared. The city pointed out that most of that land had homes. But half of the block bordering 26th Street and directly across from the Italian Club Cemetery was empty and the other half had a single structure.
The last College and Cottage Hill cemetery burials were in 1935.
A 1938 aerial photograph does not show a home on that block. A 1957 aerial does.
When asked to describe where the bones were discovered, the siblings provided directions that led to that block. The block was broken into seven lots split among various owners, who sold the land to the city in 1974.
Old legal ads and the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts’ website identifies some of the owners as Gurvis and Dorothy Richard, Jessie and Randle Higdon, Willie Mae Johnson, W.B. and Bassie Davis and Sam and Mary Zummo.
The Times has yet to learn from whom and when they purchased those lots, nor could the Times learn more about the Johnson or Davis families.
According to news archives, Gurvis Richard was a bank president and owned a laundromat, Randle Higdon worked in the steel industry and served on Saint Luke A.M.E. Church’s steward board. And Sam Zummo was a realtor and vice president of the Italian Club.
Wilson still has nightmares about the retention pond
“Every so often I have the same one,” he said. “I end up in a tunnel under it, trying to get out. I’m climbing through bones. If I get out, I end up somewhere on the outskirts of the pond. I am lost and scared.”