TAMPA — Historic Black cemeteries in Tampa were erased more than half a century ago with the help of the city government.
Tampa levied neighborhood improvement fees on Zion and College Hill cemeteries, took the lands when the owners could not pay, canceled those same fees when white developers owned the cemeteries, and then looked the other way when those burial grounds were erased.
But, while those facts were only recently discovered through Tampa Bay Times research, civil rights leaders and historians were not shocked by the revelation.
“Most of our history has been destroyed, erased by the city,” said Yvette Lewis, head of the Hillsborough County NAACP. “Name a historic Black neighborhood and it is probably gone, erased in the name of so-called city improvement.”
Now, there is a push on both sides of the bay for the local governments to take a more proactive role in raising money for Black history projects.
“They destroyed our physical history,” Lewis said. “They need to preserve the memories.”
In Tampa, Lewis would like the city to help fund a Black history museum and kick in more money toward the memorial park on the site of the erased Zion Cemetery, where the graves of hundreds pioneering Black residents were built over.
The city has donated $50,000 to the Zion cause, estimated to cost $8 million.
“Considering what they did to us, they can give a lot more,” Lewis said.
Terri Lipsey Scott echoed that sentiment.
She is executive director of St. Petersburg’s Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, working to upgrade to a new facility at an estimated cost of up to $20 million.
The city of St. Petersburg has allotted $1 million to the new facility. The museum is expected to raise the rest.
But the city once built a baseball stadium before it had a team and helped save the the Coliseum and Mahaffey Theater, Lipsey Scott said, so why can’t they better fund a Black history museum?
“The city funded those wonderful amenities,” Lipsey Scott said. “Where are we housing the stories of the African Americans who for so long suffered the brunt in our community?”
That “brunt,” she added, includes watching city governments erase Black neighborhoods.
Clearwater Historical Society President Allison Dolan put it bluntly: “If you want to know where historic Black neighborhoods were once located, look for a sports arena or the highway. That’s what they were typically replaced with.”
Tropicana Field and its parking lots and the interstate replaced St. Petersburg’s Gas Plant district, named for fuel towers that once marked it.
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In Tampa, the Garrison neighborhood was located where Amalie Arena sits today. Built around remnants of the Fort Brooke military base decommissioned in the 1880s, the Garrison was razed to make way for a warehouse district that was later demolished for the arena site.
The Scrub, a neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Tampa that was founded by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War, and the West Hyde Park neighborhood known as Dobyville were each demolished to make way for the interstate. The Scrub was also replaced with the Central Park Village housing project, which has also since been razed.
The interstate cut through Tampa’s Latin Districts of Ybor City and West Tampa, but Lewis pointed out that the city worked to save those neighborhoods.
“I guess they were more important,” Lewis said with sarcasm.
The city carved out historic districts in each and helped convert Ybor’s Seventh Avenue into an entertainment district. Ybor and West Tampa’s casita-styled homes, once thought too simple for the affluent, Lewis said, were restored and promoted as fashionable.
Meanwhile, Tampa’s Central Avenue — a once-vibrant Black entertainment district neighboring the Scrub and that had fallen on hard times — was razed. The land was turned into a park using an Urban Renewal federal grant the city received in the 1970s.
“Throughout the nation, Urban Renewal was another term for slum clearance,” said Rebecca O’Sullivan, an archaeologist with the private firm Cardno, which has conducted the physical search for several of the area’s erased Black cemeteries. “But the idea of blight and slum was a racist construct. The neighborhoods were typically Black.”
Slum clearance was the excuse behind demolishing Robles Pond in Tampa and Clearwater Heights, two of the area’s earliest Black neighborhoods.
Robles Pond, which was home to Zion Cemetery from 1901 through the 1930s, was taken via eminent domain and replaced in the 1950s with Robles Park Village housing projects, then for whites only.
News coverage said the projects replaced a “slum” that had been “bypassed by progress.”
But Eunive Massey, who grew up in Robles Pond, is offended by that characterization. She told the Times in 2019 that she never considered the neighborhood to be poor, just simple.
Barbara Sorey-Love is also bothered when people say her native Clearwater Heights had to be razed because it was a slum.
“Was it?” she said. “The answer is emphatically no.” The residents were educators and businessmen, she said, and the neighborhood had both mom and pop establishments and chains.
Still, she recalls that developers and city officials spent decades buying up the land, sometimes making offers to residents and sometimes purchasing properties after owners died.
“They kept saying it was for neighborhood improvement,” Sorey-Love said. “But they didn’t improve our neighborhood. They knocked it all down. Only a few structures from Clearwater Heights are left.”
Her family was one of the last holdouts. They sold to the city in the 1990s when they realized Clearwater Heights was already gone, replaced by corporate headquarters and industrial businesses. Sorey-Love’s former lot is now a retention pond.
“There had to be other ways to improve the areas if they indeed needed improvements. We didn’t need to just get rid of them,” said Fred Hearns, the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history. “But the process took place in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when Black folks didn’t have a voice. They didn’t have a say in the government.”
Lipsey Scott said they have a voice now, and she will use hers to push for city backing of the grand Black history museum that she believes St. Petersburg deserves.
“It will be an asset within our community,” she said. “It is a lofty goal, but if we remain committed to the change we want to see in our city, state, and nation, it can happen. We need to preserve our stories before those too are lost.”