Advertisement

Factions fight to manage a century-old Tampa Bay historic Black cemetery

Two groups claim to be Rose Cemetery’s board of directors, with both handling burials and taking payments.
For more than 100 years, Rose Cemetery has remained active and central to Tarpon Springs’ Black community.
For more than 100 years, Rose Cemetery has remained active and central to Tarpon Springs’ Black community. [ Times (2017) ]
Published Jan. 20

TARPON SPRINGS ― In Tampa Bay, where segregation-era Black cemeteries were erased throughout the early 20th century, Rose Cemetery is an outlier.

The burial ground has remained active and central to Tarpon Springs’ Black community, in large part due to the Rose Cemetery Association that manages it. That nonprofit is currently embroiled in legal conflict.

Two factions claim to be the board of directors, with both handling burials and taking payments from families.

Now, as they wait for the Pinellas County Circuit Court to rule on which board is in charge, one is hosting a rededication ceremony at 10 a.m. on Jan. 28 at the cemetery at 124 N Jasmine Ave.

“We are the board of directors,” said Katie Taylor, president of the board hosting the ceremony. “We were elected in a fair election.”

Annie Dabbs, president of the other board, said that election was fraudulent. “They have illegally taken over the cemetery.”

A granite head stone marks the burial site of Wilburt Brooks, an African-American sponge diver, whose remains are interred at Rose Cemetery, 124 N Jasmine Ave, in Tarpon Springs.
A granite head stone marks the burial site of Wilburt Brooks, an African-American sponge diver, whose remains are interred at Rose Cemetery, 124 N Jasmine Ave, in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

According to the application that had the cemetery placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the five-acre property was initially owned by Hamilton Disston, a wealthy manufacturer from Philadelphia. The earliest legible marked burial is from 1904, but the cemetery is believed to date to the late 1800s. In 1917, it was deeded to the association.

By the early 1990s, it became overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. That’s when Alfred Quarterman joined the board, organized volunteers, and restored the cemetery.

He’s currently a member of the Dabbs board.

“I have nothing negative to say about Mr. Quarterman,” Taylor said. “He did an excellent job.”

Still, friction began in 2019, according to court documents filed by the Dabbs board. Taylor, who was on that board, was “fussing with the president at every meeting” and creating “disorder.” In December 2019, that board voted to remove her.

Taylor does not dispute that she bickered at meetings, but said she did so because there were “too many family members on the small board. That’s a conflict of interest that I was concerned about. We couldn’t get anything done because they voted together.” Of the 11 on that board, two were related to Quarterman.

According to court documents filed by the Taylor board, the Dabbs board also mishandled finances. Dabbs denied that allegation.

The Taylor board also contends that the Dabbs board refused to conduct an annual meeting or election in accordance with the by-laws, keeping them in power past their term. Dabbs said the pandemic forced such matters to be put on hold.

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter

You’ll get a remembrance of Tampa Bay residents we’ve lost, including heartwarming and amusing details about their lives, every Tuesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Members of the association contacted the Florida Attorney General’s Office, who then informed the Dabbs board that an annual meeting should be held before Sept. 10, 2021, according to court documents filed by the Taylor board. When a meeting was not held, the Florida Attorney General’s Office suggested “a neutral party assists in coordinating an election.”

Taylor said she recommended that Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP fill that role, and everyone agreed.

But Herbert Elliott, the attorney for the Dabbs board, alleges Taylor falsely told them that the Florida Attorney General’s Office ordered Atkinson to be the third party. And, when Dabbs’ board learned the truth and believed Atkinson was only there to take Taylor’s side, they refused his assistance.

“I am not on one side or the other,” Atkinson said. “I just want to make this work.”

Atkinson scheduled an election for July 16 and said he invited the “56 or so members” for whom he was given paperwork. He can’t recall how many association members were present, “but it was under 50.”

The members from the Dabbs board were on the ballot, but none went to the meeting nor were reelected.

The Dabbs board, under the Rose Cemetery Association, then petitioned the court to nullify all actions taken by the Taylor board. Among their allegations is that bylaws were ignored because the election announcement was not sent in the mail and Atkinson did not request ample proof that all voters had family in the cemetery, which is a requisite to be an association member.

Atkinson said that he did everything by the book.

Meanwhile, the Taylor board, also under the Rose Cemetery Association, successfully had the court dismiss the petition and then filed a new petition that asks the court to declare the election valid. They also requested an injunction against the Dabbs board to stop them from performing managerial duties at the cemetery, which includes at least three burials.

Elliott said the Dabbs board will not give up.

“That’s where we’re at,“ Atkinson said. “This needs to be resolved. The cemetery is too important to the community.”