TAMPA — Jeraldine Williams might have the distinction of being linked to two erased Black cemeteries.
While chronicling her family tree last year, Williams learned her great-great-grandmother was buried in Zion Cemetery, the segregation era burial ground discovered under a Tampa housing project, warehouses and tow lot. A Tampa Bay Times investigation identified Zion’s location, and archaeologists confirmed that bodies remain there.
“My great-grandfather, Eli McCall, was buried in another Tampa cemetery that no longer exists,” she emailed the Times in November. “It’s called St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery,” according to his death certificate, which Williams located through genealogy websites.
She asked the Times to help find it.
It’s about 2.5 miles east of Zion, an extensive search of public records shows.
The Times can’t say with total certainty that the cemetery is still there, but numerous clues indicate that it likely is in the 3400 block of Genesee Street in East Tampa, under four homes and the Greater Mount Carmel AME Church parking lot.
There is no evidence that the more than 400 Black residents buried there through 1940 were ever moved.
But there is evidence that graves remain.
If the gravesite is confirmed it would join the growing list of recently discovered burial grounds across Tampa Bay. Archaeologists have confirmed that six sites throughout the region are home to erased or forgotten graves tied to pioneering Black communities. Another four sites have been identified as likely locations but have not yet been surveyed by archaeologists. Each of the discoveries came after the Times in 2019 detailed what happened to Zion, among the largest of the forgotten cemeteries.
“This should disappoint everyone,” said Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “But considering what we know, this latest discovery shouldn’t shock anyone.”
To unlock the latest mystery, the Times sifted through thousands of death records, land deeds, newspaper archives, lawsuits, government statutes and meeting minutes stored throughout Tampa Bay, at the Jacksonville Public Library, the University of North Florida and Duke University.
The discovery didn’t surprise some of those who own properties that make up the cemetery footprint.
Sisters Sylvia Baker and Sandra Jean Badgett own two of the houses there — one a residence for Baker and the other, their childhood home that they keep as a rental. Both said they suspected they could have lived atop a cemetery after bones were found in the 1950s when the neighborhood was being developed.
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“It never bothered me when I thought there might be a graveyard,” Baker, 64, said. “It doesn’t bother me now that I know.”
Greater Mount Carmel AME Pastor Bryant Fayson said elder parishioners have long said that their grassy parking lot was once a cemetery. One church member pointed out where she saw grave markers as a kid.
Another woman, who has lived a block over since the 1960s, also recalled bones being found through the years.
Neither knew the name of the cemetery nor the size of it. They believed it was small and linked to the church.
Finding this missing cemetery wasn’t easy. Unlike the other recently discovered burial grounds, the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery — also called the St. Joseph Cemetery — wasn’t on old maps or in city directories. Federal documents don’t contain directions leading to it. It was not named in obituaries.
The only mention of its location that the Times could find was a 1928 sales deed. It had been misfiled.
Rather than being with the deeds for the 1920s, it was with deeds spanning the late 1940s through late 1950s. It almost didn’t get noticed. The Times only searched that folder because that period in history was when the cemetery’s founder had died and when the cemetery’s subdivision was annexed by the city.
The story of the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery begins with hope, with an organization that sought to improve the lives of post-Civil War Black residents who once were enslaved or had parents who were enslaved.
The story ends with despair.
“Florida has challenging parts of its past,” said State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat. “It’s a former slave-owning state that was then part of the Jim Crow South. Black people were discriminated against, even in death.”
The St. Joseph Aid Society was a national Black fraternal organization with chapters spanning Florida to New York. At its peak, the society had 100,000 members, $50,000 in cash and $100,000 in property.
Established in Jacksonville in 1896 by Thomas H.B. Walker, its members were eligible for financial assistance if they were unemployed or in need of life insurance, college scholarships and burial assistance.
Walker was “among the most educated men in Florida,” said Jacksonville historian Gerald Urso, with friends who included the king of Liberia and W. E. B. Du Bois.
“He helped establish churches everywhere he went,” Urso said. “He established St. Joseph Aid Societies everywhere he went.”
Walker was in Tampa by 1901 when he became the pastor at Bowman AME Church, one of the city’s first Black churches. He established the St. Joseph Aid Society locally with headquarters in downtown Tampa’s Scrub neighborhood and downtown St. Petersburg’s Gas Plant neighborhood, both pioneering Black communities in that era of segregation.
In 1907, the Montana City Subdivision was created. Then outside the city limits, the Black community had boundaries of what are now Genesee, 34th and 37th streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
That year, Walker purchased an acre of land there for his cemetery. It’s unclear if it was for society members only.
Walker was back in Jacksonville by 1915. But records show that people were buried in his cemetery through 1919, when the Memorial Park Cemetery was established a mile away for Black residents.
Then, in 1927, undertaker Edward Stone was awarded the city of Tampa’s contract for indigent Black burials. He purchased the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery the following year and burials resumed the following year.
Stone died in 1931.
The funeral home — under the direction of Stone’s wife — buried people in the cemetery through early 1940, records show.
By then, the state had become the land’s trustee.
In 1937, to collect $97 million in delinquent property taxes owed throughout Florida, the legislature passed a law requiring local clerks to collect back taxes from property owners. The state would serve as trustee of the delinquent land until it was auctioned. St. Joseph Aid Cemetery was among those properties.
The St. Joseph Aid Society’s membership had dwindled, and members’ families were filing civil lawsuits against it for not paying life insurance claims. The society said it was struggling financially because too many members were dying.
The cemetery was among 25 area properties purchased by Winter Haven’s J.F. Holly in a county auction in 1943.
The cemetery land was separated into parcels and sold and developed over the next 15 years, with Baker and Badgett’s parents, the Pedrosos, buying their lot in 1956.
Stone’s business still is run by his family, now named the Stone Memorial Funeral Home.
His granddaughter, Fannie Stone, was surprised to learn that the family once owned a cemetery. “I wasn’t even born yet,” she said.
She was surprised that the cemetery was taken from the family. Her grandmother was wealthy and could have afforded back taxes, she said.
Hearns, of the history center, confirmed that the Stone family was prominent.
What’s more, Fannie Stone said, “Cemeteries are not supposed to be taxed, so how could it owe taxes?”
She’s right, but the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery was not the only cemetery to be wrongly taxed under the new state law.
The Italian Club also was notified its cemetery land was delinquent. But the social club successfully petitioned the County Commission to cancel those taxes because it was a cemetery.
An unidentified cemetery on the Little Manatee River was purchased in a county auction. But the new owner returned it to the previous owner after learning it was a cemetery.
Curator Hearns said a lack of government representation might have led to the St. Joseph Aid Society’s erasure.
“We had no elected African Americans in public office looking out for what was best for the African American community,” Hearns said.
Perhaps no one informed the Stone family that they could petition for the taxes to be canceled, Hearns said, or perhaps they were denied the chance.
“They might also have figured it was a lost cause, so why bother?” he said. “Most folk would have probably just said, ‘Well, you know, we’ll make the best of things the way they are.’”
Wrongly levied taxes played a role in the erasure of three other Tampa Bay Black cemeteries.
The city of Tampa imposed neighborhood improvement taxes on Zion and College Hill cemeteries. Clearwater did the same to St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery. Each cemetery was taken when the land owners didn’t pay.
Archaeologists also have confirmed bodies remain on the St. Matthew site, now home to the headquarters for FrankCrum, a human resources consulting firm. College Hill, now a parking lot for the Italian Club Cemetery, has yet to be surveyed.
It has been illegal to knowingly disturb graves in Florida since 1868.
The St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery was hard to forget for those who grew up in the Montana City Subdivision, which remains a Black community now dotted with aging homes, mom-and-pop businesses and brick churches.
Verdell Rogers has always lived around the corner from the cemetery land.
She recalled that in the mid-1940s, when she was around 10 and the neighborhood roads were still made of sand, the cemetery land was overgrown with weeds and uncut grass. She’d cut through that lot when walking to her grandparents’ nearby house and recalled three grave markers there, near 34th Street on the land that is now the church parking lot.
“They were those tin temporary markers,” Rogers, 86, said. “I thought they were the only three people buried there.”
When Greater Mount Carmel AME, at 4209 N 34th St., purchased the neighboring parcel in 1986 for additional parking, Rogers said, she and other parishioners wondered, “I guess the cemetery is gone?”
Badgett, who owns one of the homes on the cemetery footprint, estimates she was 6 when her parents drove the family to see where they’d be living.
“There were no houses yet,” said Badgett, 70. “It was just plain ground. They were digging the sewage or something. We were going to leave, and they dug up a skeleton. But we didn’t know it was a graveyard. No one said there could be more.”
And while they wondered, it was not something that consumed them, Badgett said. “We were kids, and we weren’t thinking about anything like that. We just lived our lives.”
Her sister bought the neighboring home in 1993 and both sisters inherited their childhood home when their mother died.
Carol Ransom, 64, has lived a block from the cemetery land since she was a child.
She said that a man who lived on the cemetery footprint in the 1970s occasionally unearthed bones while gardening. On at least one occasion, he placed a human bone on her grandmother’s porch.
“She yelled to get that out of there,” Ransom said. “It was common knowledge a cemetery used to be there. But we didn’t know if it was all there or just a few bodies were left.”
Cemetery researcher Ray Reed found 430 death certificates for the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery. Reed has spent years sifting through every Hillsborough death record from 1900 through 1940 in search of people buried in cemeteries that no longer exist. His work has been vital to the discovery of erased cemeteries.
Reed provided his St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery records to the Times. The names were entered into cemetery databases throughout the Tampa Bay area. None of the names were associated with any known local cemeteries.
Greater Mount Carmel’s Fayson said he would allow archaeologists to roll ground-penetrating radar across his parking lot to look for graves, but his church cannot afford it.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said the county needs to pay for it since it played a direct role in its erasure. “We need to take the question mark off this. We need to know if a cemetery is still there.”
State Rep. Driskell sponsored a bill to create a state Office of Historic Cemeteries to focus on the issue of the erased and abandoned Black cemeteries being discovered throughout the state. The bill died in the last session.
She said the latest discovery underscores why that office is needed.
“I would like to see the state establish a fund to help pay for ground-penetrating radar or any other noninvasive means to learn if there are bodies buried there or in any land” where there might be an erased cemetery, she said. “It can be a very expensive process and the people who own the property may not have the resources to help with that.”
Until now, Zion was the only erased Tampa Bay cemetery that had people living on it.
Four Robles Park Village housing project buildings were erected on Zion in the 1950s.
Tampa Housing Authority officials relocated the residents in 2019 after archaeologists confirmed Zion’s existence. They will one day demolish those buildings and donate the land to a new nonprofit formed to manage Zion.
The nonprofit is seeking government grants and private donations to purchase the other two properties that make up the Zion footprint. It eventually wants to restore the land as a cemetery.
Williams, who sits on the Zion nonprofit board, hopes the same can be done for the St. Joseph’s Aid Society Cemetery where her great grandfather is buried.
But the sister homeowners already have nixed that plan, for now.
“My houses are not for sale,” Baker said. “Period.”
Her sister, Badgett, said she might want to one day return to the childhood home.
The owners of the other two homes on the cemetery footprint did not respond to requests for comment.
Fayson said his church would consider selling the parking lot.
Williams, the first Black student to graduate from the School of Journalism at the University of Florida, is disappointed by the sisters’ decision.
“That’s their prerogative,” she said. “But I hope they change their minds.”
It is not illegal to live on a cemetery, but it is illegal to knowingly disturb graves, which could make it difficult to sell the land. If bodies are still there, they will likely have to be dug up and reburied in another cemetery before anything is built on that block again.
That’s an expensive process. Before stakeholders decided to keep Zion in place, archaeologists said, it could cost millions of dollars to relocate the nearly 1,000 buried there.
Williams does not think the bodies should be relocated.
“Don’t touch them,” she said.
Driskell said that has been the sentiment for all the discovered erased cemeteries. “It probably is best to not relocate the bodies. More than anything, what people seem to want is to give the dead their peace.”
She acknowledged the state played a role in the erasure, but stopped short of saying the state should help purchase the properties and reassemble the cemetery should the land ever go on the market.
“But I think it’s a conversation worth having,” she said. “There might be some ways to do it.”
Lewis of the NAACP is resolute that the county should play a role, too.
The property owners did not do anything wrong, she said, so, “if those families ever want to sell or move, it is up to the county to make them whole.”
1868: The state of Florida declares it illegal to disturb a grave and construct over a cemetery.
1896: The St. Joseph Aid Society is founded in Jacksonville by Thomas H.B. Walker.
1901: Walker is pastor of Bowman AME Church and establishes a local chapter of the society.
1907: Walker establishes the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery in the Montana City Subdivision.
1919: Burials at the cemetery cease.
1928: Undertaker Edward Stone purchases the cemetery from Walker.
1929: Burials reconvene.
1937: The state legislature passes the Murphy Act, which allows them to become trustees of properties with delinquent taxes.
1940: The Stone funeral home buries the last of more than 400 at the cemetery.
1943: The cemetery, taken from the Stone family under the Murphy Act, is purchased in a county auction by Winter Haven’s J.F. Holly and broken into five lots for development.
Mid-1940s: At least three grave markers are still on the property.
1950s: Human remains are discovered as construction crews develop the neighborhood.
1970s: Human remains are discovered while a homeowner gardens.
2021: Jeraldine Williams asks the Tampa Bay Times to find the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery, where her great-grandfather is buried.