Tampa loses control of historic Black cemetery. A property flipper now owns it.

Memorial Park Cemetery was established in 1919. It was abandoned a century later.
Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa is seen in 2021. The cemetery opened in 1919.
Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa is seen in 2021. The cemetery opened in 1919. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 30|Updated Jan. 31

TAMPA — The city of Tampa has been maintaining the 104-year-old segregation era Memorial Park Cemetery since its owner died in 2019 and the Black burial ground was abandoned.

They hoped to officially take ownership of it earlier this month by placing a lien and foreclosing on the 20-acre property and then purchasing it at a county auction held about two weeks ago.

But they were outbid in the blind auction process.

Now, a company that, according to its director, specializes in buying and reselling foreclosed property is the cemetery’s owner.

“We reached out to see what their plans are,” city spokesperson Adam Smith said. “The ball is in their court.”

Alexis Arteaga, the director of 2715 West Sligh LLC, said they are “looking for a company that can handle” maintenance but does not plan on being the long-term owner of the cemetery at 2225 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. “We want to sell it.”

Smith said the city did not think anyone else would bid on a property that cannot be developed and has a high cost of maintenance. The cemetery has around 6,000 headstones, including those of veterans that date back to World War I, and an unknown number of unmarked graves.

The city placed a lien for around $9,000 on the property, which is what they were owed for mowing it, Smith said. “In an effort to make sure its long-term maintenance could be taken care of, we foreclosed so we could take ownership.”

The city bid around $9,000, Smith said, and the winning bid was for around $18,000. Arteaga said he spent close to $30,000 after paying taxes and other associated fees.

Aileen Henderson, who heads The Cemetery Society not-for-profit that has been helping to clean the cemetery, was disappointed.

“Why was the city willing to roll the dice and foreclose on it?” she said. “This was reckless and irresponsible. And now a for-profit company owns it.”

A marker is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa in 2021.
A marker is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa in 2021. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

During segregation, the Tampa area had at least eight burial sites for Black residents. But, one by one, they were abandoned, stolen or forgotten, then erased and built over. Only Memorial Park and the city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery with a Black section remain from that era.

John Robinson’s family purchased Memorial Park in 1929 and operated the cemetery until he died in 2019. Robinson left the cemetery to a niece and nephew, but they didn’t want it.

The city began caring for the abandoned cemetery, which had become a mess. They picked up litter, trimmed trees and cleared weeds that covered sections of headstones.

According to the Hillsborough County property appraiser’s website, Arteaga’s company owns at least 20 properties throughout the Tampa area.

Looking to explore the Tampa Bay area?

Looking to explore the Tampa Bay area?

Subscribe to our free One Day in Tampa Bay newsletter series

Once a week, you’ll get insider tips on things to do, dining and more to help you plan a perfect day in a local city or neighborhood.

You’re all signed up!

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

Explore all your options

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, was confused by this purchase.

“Why would they buy a cemetery?” she said. “There is no money to be made off that cemetery. I hope their intentions are good.”