TAMPA — Memorial Park Cemetery has not looked this good in decades.
The segregation-era Black burial ground’s grass is regularly mowed, litter is in trash cans rather than strewn about and tree branches and weeds no longer grow overtop graves.
That is due in large part to the city of Tampa, which began caring for Memorial Park in 2019 after its longtime owner died and the cemetery was abandoned. Memorial Park was then acquired at a Hillsborough County auction in January by a property flipper who recently sold it to the city for $100,000.
The cleanup and purchase have been costly and laborious, but the hard part is just beginning.
Now, the city must sort through 104 years of records to figure out who is buried in Memorial Park and where.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Neris Reyero, the city’s cemetery coordinator. “It’s going to take awhile.”
John Robinson, whose family owned the cemetery from 1929 until he died in 2019, did his best to care for the 20-acre Memorial Park, but he was a one-man operation and the job got away from him.
Cemeteries typically have a master list and corresponding map that detail who is buried where. Those allow for family and friends to find their loved ones or ancestors more easily. Neither exist for Memorial Park at 2225 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., so the city will attempt to make them.
Burial records, handwritten and in notebooks, date to the cemetery’s opening in 1919.
Some records are missing. George Middleton, the namesake for the first high school established for Black students during the era of segregation, is not listed in the notebook. Middleton’s death certificate says he was buried in Memorial Park.
A few months before he died, Robinson told the Tampa Bay Times that a fire destroyed many records decades ago.
Other records are missing information. Each listed burial should include its location by section, tier, row and space. Some have all the information. Some do not.
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Memorial Park is broken into eight sections, but the city only has maps for sections 3, 5 and 8.
“Our first step is making those maps,” said Lisa Grizzle, the city parks and recreation administrative manager.
To do so, city employees must walk the cemetery while checking where records list each headstone. That will help them plot the sections.
It will also help the city to account for missing records.
“If we don’t have one for John Smith but find his headstone, we can make his,” Reyero said.
The city may learn who is buried in unmarked graves, too.
Among those without a headstone is Richard Doby, who helped establish Tampa’s pioneering Black communities of Robles Park and Dobyville. In 1936, Doby purchased spaces 28, 29 and 30 in section 6, tier 1, row 3. Two of those spaces were bought for his son Ernest Doby and an unnamed infant. The records do not say who was buried in the third, but it could be Doby.
Middleton does not have a headstone either, but he has family buried there. If there is an unmarked grave next to theirs, the city might be able to assume it is Middleton.
Rediscovering lost graves, Grizzle said, makes the effort worth it. “It is in the best interest of the city and residents for the city to own this historic cemetery.”