TAMPA — On Oct. 19, the Italian Club hosted a meeting for Florida sheriffs about the state’s missing persons cold cases.
Rey Reed, whose research has been vital in identifying those buried in 11 Tampa Bay cemeteries that were discovered to have been erased and built over, questions why the Ybor City venue was chosen.
“Does anyone else find it either poor taste (or extreme irony)?” he wrote in an email to city, county and state elected officials and the Tampa Bay Times.
The Italian Club, Reed says, is a reason why College Hill Cemetery is what he considers to be a cold case.
Records indicate that College Hill Cemetery was once was located at what is now the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot in East Tampa. Around 1,200 Black and Cuban residents were buried there in the early 1900s, but no one knows if their graves remain or were moved.
Well, the Italian Club might know. But they won’t say.
In February, the Times spotted geotechnical consulting firm Ardaman & Associates rolling ground-penetrating radar on vacant cemetery land next to the parking lot, but the club has neither released the results nor stated whether that work was performed to look for College Hill graves.
The city emailed the Italian Club in May and again in June asking for the results of the scan. The Italian Club did not respond to either request, said city spokesperson Adam Smith.
Because the cemetery parking lot at 2520 E 24th Ave. is private property, the “city has no authority to require the club to share its findings with the public, or respond to the city’s queries,” Smith said, “but obviously this is an issue that transcends the club’s property line and concerns the wider Tampa community. Nobody wants to see history erased.”
The radar results could determine if College Hill Cemetery graves still are there, were moved, or if they never were there and the old records are incorrectly pointing to that area as the burial ground.
“I am frustrated,” said Yvette Lewis, head of the Hillsborough County NAACP. “I feel as though the African American people who laid their loved ones there in death are being told that their loved ones don’t matter. I would expect the Italian Club to want to recognize them, want to correct what might have gone on there, or want to remove any question marks.”
On Sept. 9, the Times emailed Italian Club executive director Mark Stanish about another issue. He responded to those questions. The Times then replied with an email asking about radar results. Stanish did not respond.
That same day, the Times spoke with Italian Club president Sal Guagliardo. When asked about radar results, he replied that the club would discuss them at an upcoming meeting and ended the phone call.
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More than a month later, the Times asked about that board meeting in phone messages and emails to Stanish, Guagliardo and the club’s attorney, Townsend Belt. They did not respond.
The Ybor-based social club celebrating Tampa’s Italian heritage did not respond to eight previous requests for comment about College Hill Cemetery made since the Times published a detailed report on the missing burial ground in May 2021.
In the months following that report, the city sought to assist the Italian Club in discovering if graves were still there, according to emails acquired by the Times through a public information request.
In June 2021, Italian Club leaders met with Orlando Gudes, then city councilman for the East Tampa district that includes the cemetery, and Ocea Wynn, the city’s administrator of neighborhood and community affairs.
During that meeting, according to an email, the Italian Club stated the possible College Hill Cemetery land was donated to them by the city, so they should take responsibility. That’s not accurate. The city donated them a sliver of the neighboring drainage ditch as an easement, but the Italian Club purchased the parking lot land in 1950 from Joseph Puglisi and Paul DiPietra.
Then, in August 2021, the city suggested that the Italian Club reach out to Shannon Peck-Bartle, whose African American Cemetery Alliance of Tampa Bay might be able to assist with independent research and radar, according to an email. Peck-Bartle said they never contacted her.
Six other identified locations for erased area cemeteries have been scanned with radar. Graves were discovered at each of them.
Results for some, like Zion Cemetery under Tampa’s Robles Park Village apartments and Ridgewood Cemetery on Temple Terrace’s King High School campus, were released to the public within weeks.
The results for Port Tampa Cemetery on MacDill Air Force Base took around nine months to be made public and Clearwater’s St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery on the FrankCrum company’s campus took around five months. In each case, the property owners informed the public that there was a delay because they were waiting for a full archaeological report to be written.
Angela Alderman, whose great uncle was among those buried in College Hill Cemetery and who successfully lobbied for the historic marker that now notes its location as being at the Italian Club Cemetery parking lot, has on three occasions at Tampa City Council meetings expressed frustration with what she has called the Italian Club’s lack of transparency.
On Oct. 27, she emailed the Italian Club and shared it with the Times. The email expressed her disappointment.
“It saddens me no one has tried to reach out to me to work towards answers as opposed to ignoring them ... how heartbroken would you be if this happened to one of your loved ones? ” she wrote.
The Italian Club had not responded to her.