TAMPA — It’s been three years since the Tampa Bay Times first published a report with evidence that the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot was once the location of College Hill Cemetery, likely containing up to 1,200 graves of Tampa’s pioneering Black and Cuban residents.
No one has found proof the graves were moved, so archaeologists believe they could still be under the parking lot and a portion of a mausoleum.
The Italian Club continues to use the acre of land at 2520 E 24th Ave. for parking.
Now, two Tampa residents, independent of one another, are asking for the city to intervene. Tell the Italian Club to stop parking on the property, they said, and work to learn if graves are still there or were perhaps dug up and dumped on neighboring land.
“It absolutely upsets me to feel the amount of disrespect done to those buried there,” Angela Alderman wrote in an email to City Council member Orlando Gudes, who represents East Tampa, and Luis Viera, who supported her successful effort to have a historic marker erected that denotes College Hill Cemetery’s location.
She copied the Times on the email.
Alderman, whose uncle Frank Martinez was among those buried in College Hill Cemetery, also wants either the city or Italian Club to fund an archaeological survey of the property.
“Having a conversation is always positive,” Gudes said. “If the Italian Club is willing to work with us, if the city is willing to work and partner with them, I think we need to have the conversation.”
Viera said he “supports the city making available its time and reasonable resources to the private property owner to confirm if bodies are still at this location.” If the cemetery was erased, “no decent society should tolerate that, and we must make amends.”
Alderman wrote that she does not understand why the Italian Club would not agree to an archaeological survey “if there is nothing there.”
The Italian Club did not respond to an email or voicemail from the Times.
The Ybor City-based social club celebrating Tampa’s Italian heritage also did not respond to six previous requests for comment, made since the Times published a second and more detailed report on College Hill Cemetery in May 2021.
At a September City Council meeting, Natasha Goodley, who lives near the Italian Club Cemetery, asked the city to ban anyone from parking on the site of College Hill Cemetery. In response, the council asked the city’s legal department to draft an ordinance that bans parking or storing items on all known cemeteries.
On Thursday, Goodley again made the request, this time to Tampa’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
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She would also like the property to be surveyed by archaeologists, but said she doesn’t need one to know that it is a cemetery.
“Records speak for themselves,” Goodley said. “It’s not a parking lot. It’s a cemetery. There are graves underneath that land. Respect those people.”
But, in a memo to City Council on Friday, the city attorney’s office warned that banning parking on privately owned cemeteries could infringe upon property owner rights.
“Any regulation imposed on private cemeteries raises concerns about potential liability under state law,” the memo reads. It later says, “An ordinance limiting the use of a cemetery property if approved may be viewed as imposing an inordinate burden on the property owner’s use of their property.”
Goodley wasn’t convinced.
“They don’t want to open themselves up to a lawsuit,” she said. “Would the Italian Club really sue the city and say they want to continue parking on graves? There is plenty of street parking they could use. The city and the Italian Club need to get together for a meeting about this.”
The Times has discovered multiple old city maps plus a federal document pointing to the Italian Club Cemetery’s current parking lot as College Hill Cemetery.
College Hill Cemetery was established in 1899 and last documented as a burial ground in 1942. It then became overgrown with grass, weeds and trees.
In 1950, the Italian Club bought that piece of land from individuals who have no known link to College Hill Cemetery. It’s unknown if headstones were still there or if anyone involved in the sale knew that it was a cemetery.
In recent years and in response to Times research, archaeologists have confirmed that six sites throughout the Tampa Bay region are home to erased or forgotten graves tied to pioneering Black communities. Another five sites, including College Hill Cemetery, have been identified as likely locations but have not yet been surveyed by archaeologists.
Two were confirmed in Clearwater and another in St. Petersburg through city-funded surveys.
“I just want to know if my uncle and 1,200 others are still there,” Alderman wrote in her email. “And if not ... where are they?”
They could have been dumped on the neighboring land that today is a city-owned retention pond.
Siblings previously told the Times that they discovered a mass grave on that property when the pond was being dug in the 1970s.
If a survey of the Italian Club parking lot finds that graves were moved, Alderman wrote, the city should then investigate the pond.
“I have found forgiveness in my heart for what happened to my great uncle and the 1,200 lost,” Alderman wrote. “But with forgiveness comes hope ... I am seeking some answers and closure to this.”