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Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery might have an erased Black section

Land that is now a city parking lot and a church fellowship hall was deeded as a Black cemetery in 1883.
The parking in the northeast corner of Oaklawn Cemetery and the fellowship hall to the north of the church across the street are within the footprint of property that was deeded as a Black cemetery in 1883. It's unclear if anyone was buried there.
The parking in the northeast corner of Oaklawn Cemetery and the fellowship hall to the north of the church across the street are within the footprint of property that was deeded as a Black cemetery in 1883. It's unclear if anyone was buried there. [ Courtesy of Google Earth ]
Published Jun. 2, 2022

TAMPA — The historic marker outside Oaklawn Cemetery describes Tampa’s first public burial ground as the “resting place” for “White and Slave, Rich and Poor.”

As one of those enslaved by Tampa’s pioneering McKay family, Isaac Howard would have been destined to be buried in an unmarked grave in Oaklawn’s “slave” section.

Then came the Civil War.

Emancipated, Howard sought to establish places for Tampa’s free Black residents to be buried.

He founded at least one — a Black section in College Hill Cemetery, an erased burial ground identified by a previous Tampa Bay Times investigation as likely being located under the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot.

Howard might be linked to a second missing Black cemetery.

The Times discovered a deed with Howard’s signature for an unnamed Black cemetery adjoining Oaklawn.

Rebecca O’Sullivan, an archaeologist with the private firm Stantec, confirmed the deed is for that location.

Related: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on forgotten Black cemeteries.

Today that property includes most of a parking lot owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, which is leased by the city of Tampa. The cemetery footprint would have extended in a northeast direction across the street to where Greater Bethel Missionary Baptist Church’s fellowship hall is now located, on the corner of E. Laurel and N. Jefferson streets.

The Times could not find evidence that anyone was buried there.

But now that the properties have been identified as the possible location of a cemetery, an archaeological survey will likely be required before any future developments are approved. It is illegal to knowingly disturb a grave.

Archaeologists have confirmed that six sites throughout the region are home to erased or forgotten graves tied to pioneering Black communities. Another five sites have been identified as likely locations but have not yet been surveyed. Each of the discoveries came after the Times in 2019 detailed what happened to Zion, among the largest of the forgotten cemeteries.

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The Diocese of St. Petersburg’s St. Louis Cemetery neighbors Oaklawn to the north. Those two cemeteries are abutted by the parking lot in the northeast corner of that property.

The Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said that historians have long wondered if the parking lot land was once used for burials because it seemed odd that just that corner of the property would be omitted.

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“That’s been a question mark on people’s minds,” Kite-Powell said. “Now we know it was supposed to be and might have been.”

Greater Bethel’s pastor Brett Snowden welcomes an investigation on his property. The church has been across the street from Oaklawn since the early 1900s.

The church building is outside what would have been the Black cemetery’s footprint. The fellowship hall within the footprint, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, was erected in the 1940s.

“I’ve talked to several members who know the history of the church,” Snowden said. “It doesn’t sound familiar to anyone. No one seems to have any knowledge of a cemetery potentially being on the site. But we certainly need to know the truth.”

An FDOT spokesperson did not respond to an email when asked if the FDOT would like to know if bodies are there, instead saying that the property had been purchased in 2006.

Adam Smith, spokesperson for the city of Tampa, declined comment.

Oaklawn was established in 1850. It more than doubled in size over the next three decades when Thomas Jackson and James Magbee sold their neighboring lots to the Ladies Memorial Society, which managed the cemetery.

In 1883, Magbee sold another neighboring property for $50 to the Nickle Club of Tampa, a fraternal Black organization. Nickle Club officers mentioned on the deed are Howard, undertaker Henry Blair, and Harry Hopkins.

The deed says the half acre is to be used “for a cemetery under the management of said Nickle Club.”

That area made sense for a Black cemetery, Kite-Powell said. It was in the area known as the Scrub, which was downtown’s Black neighborhood established by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War.

“And it would make it make some degree of sense to add that section to Oaklawn, which already existed,” Kite-Powell said.

Maureen Patrick, a Tampa historian who once offered walking tours of Oaklawn, was not surprised that Magbee, who was a judge, was willing to sell downtown land for a Black cemetery in those racist times.

“He did serve in the Confederate Army,” she said, “but he did not act like a member of the Confederacy after he returned to Tampa. He often aroused public wrath by compelling white men to serve on juries with” Black men.

Still, it’s unclear if anyone was buried there because government death records were not kept then.

Oaklawn Cemetery was Tampa's first public burial ground.
Oaklawn Cemetery was Tampa's first public burial ground. [ Times (2017) ]

The Nickle Club sold the land in July 1889 for $1 to Martin Lovengreen, a white undertaker who also buried Black residents. That deed makes no mention of a cemetery.

In August 1889, the Nickle Club paid $100 for the plot of land in College Hill that became their cemetery.

The Nickle Club’s former downtown land was then parceled into multiple lots and sold.

O’Sullivan said she long believed the FDOT land should be surveyed for graves, even before learning it might have been a Black cemetery.

“Oaklawn is Tampa’s oldest public burying ground,” O’Sullivan said, “so it is possible that burials could extend outside the modern boundaries in some places.”

This map from 1915 shows Oaklawn Cemetery and its surrounding downtown Tampa neighborhood. Most of the section in the northeast corner of the cemetery plus land across the street labelled 823 Constant St. were intended to be a Black cemetery. It's unclear if anyone was buried there.
This map from 1915 shows Oaklawn Cemetery and its surrounding downtown Tampa neighborhood. Most of the section in the northeast corner of the cemetery plus land across the street labelled 823 Constant St. were intended to be a Black cemetery. It's unclear if anyone was buried there. [ Courtesy of Tampa Bay History Center ]

In 1906, one of the Nickle Club’s former downtown lots was purchased by Thomas H.B. Walker for Bowman AME Church, where he was pastor.

A year later, Walker established another Black burial ground — the St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery, which was erased in the 1940s.

Howard served as janitor in Tampa City Hall after emancipation, died in 1910 and was buried in College Hill, which was also erased in the 1940s.

In 1917, Blair buried a son in Zion Cemetery, another Black burial ground. It was erased in the 1930s.

Blair died in 1919 and was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery. His is now among the unmarked graves that are lost in that Black cemetery.

As for whether the Nickle Club’s downtown land was used as a cemetery, “there is only one way to know for certain,” Kite-Powell said. “And that’s to check.”