TAMPA — The search for the College Hill Cemetery began with an email from Angela Alderman.
Her uncle Frank Martinez’ death certificate says he was buried in College Hill Cemetery in 1917, she wrote to the Tampa Bay Times, but such a place does not exist. Where is it?
Two years later, the Times published the answer. Records say it was on property that is now the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot in East Tampa
Over 1,200 — mostly Black and Cuban people — were buried there.
Nearly all are missing.
The Italian Club has not publicly commented since the Times’ report was published in May.
So, Alderman is taking it upon herself to memorialize the erased by petitioning for a historic marker denoting College Hill Cemetery’s location.
“I’m just trying to do my part,” she said.
The city stepped in, too.
Councilman Orlando Gudes, who represents East Tampa, spoke with the Italian Club last month.
A result of that meeting is the formation of a city task force to deal with College Hill and other potential erased cemeteries. Five have been found throughout Tampa Bay over the last few years.
The task force is comprised of city lawyers, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Real Estate Division.
They will provide advice to owners of land where erased cemeteries are located. The task force will also serve as a middleman between the property owners and those with an emotional stake in the cemeteries.
The task force will not fund searches for graves but can reach out to the state’s newly formed abandoned Black cemetery task force. The Florida task force can recommend that the state funds an archaeological survey.
“We want to weigh in on what can be done and how it can be done,” said Ocea Wynn, Tampa’s neighborhood and community affairs administrator. “What steps can be taken? Who should they contact? We have some experience in this.”
Tampa used the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s West Central Region office to find lost graves with ground-penetrating radar at Memorial Park Cemetery, which the city has cared for since the owner died in 2019.
The archaeology network also helped find Tampa’s erased Zion Cemetery and two such cemeteries in Clearwater.
Jeff Moates of the archaeology network said the Italian Club has not contacted him.
“They expressed interest in knowing what is going on with their land,” Wynn said of the Italian Club.
When asked if they supported an archaeological survey, Wynn said she “can’t speak for them.”
The Times sent Italian Club executive director Mark Stanish two emails and left a voicemail for the organization’s cemetery committee. The was no response.
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That frustrates Alderman.
“No one is pushing aggressively enough to find out what happened to all those people,” she said. “They are missing. My uncle is missing. This is not right.”
Her request to denote College Hill Cemetery’s location will go through Hillsborough County’s Historical Advisory Council, which facilitates a historic marker program.
Alderman submitted an application and will speak before the council in September. If approved, she will have to pay the nearly $3,000 cost of a marker.
Unsure if the Italian Club would allow the marker on their property, she suggested that it could be placed on neighboring city land and say College Hill is across the street.
That city property is home to a retention pond where siblings claim they discovered a mass grave in the 1970s. College Hill Cemetery was erased by then.
An archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot could say whether graves were moved.
Alderman’s uncle was a cigar maker and mechanic. He died of a morphine overdose “but they were looking into whether someone slipped him something,” Alderman said.
News archives report that he was “suffering with stomach trouble and someone gave him an overdose of morphine.” It is unclear what came of the investigation.
But Martinez is not mentioned in Alderman’s proposed text for the marker.
“This is bigger than my family,” Alderman said. “More than 1,200 are missing. I couldn’t make this about my uncle.”
Her proposed marker text cites that College Hill Cemetery was established in 1889 and last documented as a burial ground in 1942.
“College Hill Cemetery is a reminder to Tampa and the surrounding communities that history sadly can be erased by man,” the proposed text reads, “but through research and dedication those buried here long ago can be remembered and honored.”