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Graves were found under Tropicana Field parking lots. Now what?

Archaeologists suggest a further investigation of that land plus a survey of neighboring property for graves from two other cemeteries.
Parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S.
Parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 10

ST. PETERSBURG — When driving by Tropicana Field, Corey Givens Jr. wonders if his great-grandfather, Will Williams, is buried under the nearby interstate overpass.

That’s where Moffett Cemetery was located. Bodies were moved in the 1950s, but Givens was told his ancestor was in an unmarked grave that would have been hard to find. And he said there is no record of a new burial site.

“We never learned if his body was reinterred,” Givens said.

He might finally know if bodies were forgotten.

Moffett was part of a burial campus with three cemeteries.

Last week, archaeologists announced that ground-penetrating radar discovered there are at least three graves under Tropicana Field’s parking lots 1 and 2, at the southern boundary next to 5th Ave. S. and Interstate 275.

That was home to one of those cemeteries, Oaklawn.

The archaeologists suggest more ground-penetrating radar work in the parking lots and in areas under the neighboring overpasses where Moffett and the third cemetery, Evergreen, were located.

The descendants of Will Williams wonder if his body is buried under the interstate overpass near Tropicana Field.
The descendants of Will Williams wonder if his body is buried under the interstate overpass near Tropicana Field. [ Courtesy of Corey Givens Jr. ]

“They need to do it,” Givens, 29 and of St. Petersburg, said. “It’s time that we learn the truth.”

City spokesperson Benjamin Kirby said they are waiting on Cardno to “put together a scope of services for additional work” at the former Oaklawn site. “We can start on some of those items immediately.” But, depending on the cost, “it may require City Council approval before we can proceed.”

The city is also “considering closing off the three confirmed graves to parking,” he said.

Whether archaeologists search for graves from Moffett and Evergreen is up to the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns that land.

Related: 1,200 graves are missing in Tampa. How did they disappear?

Via email, an FDOT spokesperson wrote that they are “not anticipating further disturbance in this area; however, there are ongoing conversations regarding what can be done to memorialize or further research the history of the cemeteries.”

Unlike Oaklawn, due to the interstate, only pieces of Moffett and Evergreen can be scanned.

“But there are small roadways and little open areas,” said Rebecca O’Sullivan, an archaeologist with the private archaeology firm Cardno, hired to investigate the parking lots.

This overlay of a 1923 map onto a modern one shows the location of three of St. Petersburg's earliest cemeteries. Oaklawn Cemetery was located where Tropicana Field's parking lots 1 and 2 now sit. The other two, Evergreen Cemetery and Moffett Cemetery, are under I-275.
This overlay of a 1923 map onto a modern one shows the location of three of St. Petersburg's earliest cemeteries. Oaklawn Cemetery was located where Tropicana Field's parking lots 1 and 2 now sit. The other two, Evergreen Cemetery and Moffett Cemetery, are under I-275. [ Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

Archaeologists surveyed around six of Oaklawn’s 10 acres, O’Sullivan said.

Cardno recommends scanning the remaining acreage plus further investigating the portion they already surveyed.

Besides the three graves, they found eight “areas of interest” measuring 10x10 feet through 30x30 feet where there could be “multiple graves, but the data was a little less clear,” O’Sullivan said.

The archaeology firm also recommends ground truthing, the process of digging close enough to the graves to physically confirm the radar’s data but without disturbing the remains. Ground truthing could also determine if the areas of interest have graves.

That process, Kirby said, “would occur after the baseball season is over.”

Related: RELATED: Read the Times full coverage of lost cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area

The Oaklawn graves mark the sixth time since late 2019 that archaeologists have discovered human remains from late-19th or early-20th century cemeteries that were either purposely erased or accidentally forgotten as the Tampa Bay area was developed.

Parking lots 1 and 2 are part of the 86-acre Tropicana site that the city wants to redevelop in the coming years. The discovery of graves does not halt those plans.

Developers could build around the graves or move the remains to a cemetery.

Such a choice should not be solely up to the developer. Cardno recommends that the city organizes a group of decision-making “cemetery stakeholders” that could include descendants of those possibly still buried there and community groups that represent the dead. Oaklawn was primarily a white cemetery but had a Black section, so the NAACP could be included as a stakeholder.

Once development begins, the construction team should have archaeologists on staff in case more human remains are discovered, Cardno recommends.

“There are a lot of options,” said Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno. “We need to figure out what everyone wants to do and then what can be done.”

Related: How St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field pitches stack up on parks, homes, history

Sugar Hill Community Partners, one of the two remaining Tropicana redevelopment finalists, said Cardno is part of their proposal team. Sugar Hill said their Cardno team, which works in a separate office than the archaeologists, would provide “guidance on the archaeological aspects” of the site.

“The Oaklawn, Evergreen and Moffett cemeteries should be similarly respected and treated with appropriate care and respect,” said David Carlock, Sugar Hill’s development manager, in a statement. “If our team is selected, we will seek input from descendants and community leaders and work closely with archaeological teams, City Council and city administration to ensure that is the case.”

The other finalist, Midtown Development, did not provide a comment by Tuesday afternoon.

Senior Archeologist at Cardno, Rebecca O’Sullivan, uses ground penetrating radar to take an initial scan under this section of land at a Tropicana Field parking lot in March.
Senior Archeologist at Cardno, Rebecca O’Sullivan, uses ground penetrating radar to take an initial scan under this section of land at a Tropicana Field parking lot in March. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

According to Cardno’s report: Moffett opened in 1889 and was used for burials of all ethnicities, Oaklawn was established in 1907 and Evergreen was a Black cemetery established in 1908. The city condemned all three cemeteries in 1926 and ordered there be no more burials.

Cardno historian Kimberly Hinder said records indicate that, as of 1917, “about 76 Oaklawn lots had been sold.” Measuring around 18x18 feet per lot, O’Sullivan estimates each could fit eight burials, but it remains unknown how many plots were used before the cemetery closed.

Records “indicate that at least some effort was made to relocate graves, but it remains unclear how many were moved,” Cardno’s report says.

News archives report that roughly 125 graves were exhumed from Moffett and 225 from Evergreen.

Still, in 1976, human remains were twice found when apartments on Evergreen’s footprint were razed to build the interstate overpasses.

“We need to find out if bodies are still in all three cemeteries and how many,” Givens said. “Otherwise, someday, they will be disturbed during a construction project. History should not repeat itself.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Jay Cridlin contributed to this report.