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Forgotten graves are on this family’s Wimauma land. Now what?

Graves from a neighboring Black burial ground extend into a backyard and two county rights-of-way.
 
Unmarked graves from the neighboring First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery were recently discovered at the back of the Wimauma property where Vanessa Dorsey lives. The property still contains equipment from the tow business run by her husband, who died in 2022.
Unmarked graves from the neighboring First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery were recently discovered at the back of the Wimauma property where Vanessa Dorsey lives. The property still contains equipment from the tow business run by her husband, who died in 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 12

WIMAUMA — Jennifer Robinson wasn’t shocked to learn a portion of her family’s Wimauma property contains unmarked graves.

After all, she said, a 2-acre segregation-era Black cemetery has always neighbored their backyard. Her late father wondered if anyone was accidentally buried on the property before he purchased it in the 1970s.

Ground-penetrating radar found that to be fact in December.

Now, the 38-year-old Tampa resident wonders what’s next for the property at 6017 Bassa St., which she has owned since 2019 and where her stepmother, Vanessa Dorsey, now resides.

“I watched my dad build that house with his own hands,” Robinson said. “It has a lot of sentimental value.”

Related: In search of lost cemeteries

Most refer to the burial ground as the Wimauma Cemetery or The First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery. But it was never given an official name, said Jackie Brown, whose great-grandparents are buried there.

According to the website for The Black Cemetery Network, which tracks lost, erased and endangered Black burial grounds throughout the country, it was established in 1878.

At some point, the boundaries became blurred and the property fell into disrepair. Thick foliage hid grave markers, and others went missing, said Brown. She and her sister, Shirley Brown, spearheaded a community effort that cleaned the cemetery and funded the ground-penetrating radar to delineate boundaries and search for unmarked graves.

Four unmarked graves were discovered to be spread out over around 20% of Robinson’s acre of land. There are no structures on that portion, and it directly abuts the cemetery. It most recently contained equipment from the tow business run by Robinson’s father, Phillip Dorsey, who died in 2022. The equipment was moved to another part of the yard to make way for the survey.

First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church pastor George Cooks would like the cemetery property line officially moved back to include those graves.

Robinson has no legal obligation to part with that property, and her stepmother has no problem residing on land with graves.

“What bothers me is the living,” Dorsey said. “I’m not bothered by the dead.”

Vanessa Dorsey is pictured on the front porch of the Wimauma home she lives in. Graves were recently discovered at the back of the property, which abuts The First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery.
Vanessa Dorsey is pictured on the front porch of the Wimauma home she lives in. Graves were recently discovered at the back of the property, which abuts The First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

As long as graves are there, that portion of land is considered a cemetery. That could hurt the property’s value, listed as $242,800 by Zillow.

Hillsborough County owns two 30-foot-wide undeveloped rights-of-way that meet in an L-shape and border Robinson’s property, the church and cemetery. At some point, those rights-of-way were incorporated into the cemetery and now have marked and unmarked graves.

The right-of-way between the cemetery and Robinson’s property is nearly full of graves, according to the GeoView radar report. The county is looking into vacating both rights-of-way.

The Wimauma home in which Vanessa Dorsey resides is on property that abuts The First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery.
The Wimauma home in which Vanessa Dorsey resides is on property that abuts The First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Many of these graves belong to ancestors who endured slavery, segregation, and other forms of systemic oppression,” a county spokesperson said in an email. “By actively working with our community leaders, we validate the lives and experiences of those who came before us and ensure that their contributions to our collective history are not forgotten.”

Once vacated, the spokesperson said, rights-of-way are typically split evenly down the middle between the adjacent owners on opposite sides. The church and Robinson could then negotiate divvying up that land. The church could receive the portion with graves and Robinson the piece without. A compromise like that would nearly offset the property loss Robinson would incur by parting with her acreage with graves.

Cook and Robinson both said they needed more information before making any decisions.

“I have not been told enough,” Robinson said.

Dorsey provided access to the property for the survey without permission, Robinson said. The two are estranged, and Robinson said she has not been contacted by the county or church and only knew about the discovered graves through friends in Wimauma.

Vanessa Dorsey is pictured at the back of the Wimauma property where she lives. The blue flags mark where graves were recently discovered from the neighboring First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, which is in the background.
Vanessa Dorsey is pictured at the back of the Wimauma property where she lives. The blue flags mark where graves were recently discovered from the neighboring First Prospect Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, which is in the background. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Around 100 unmarked graves were discovered within the cemetery, rights-of-way and on Robinson’s property, according to the report.

Brown said there are likely more. She has a list of around 400 people who were buried there but no longer have a headstone.

It’s possible the radar missed some, but GeoView’s Mike Wightman is confident that none extend past where the farthest unmarked grave was discovered. “We know the boundaries.”

Meanwhile, Brown said, she hopes all parties can find a fair way to have the graves on Robinson’s property incorporated into the cemetery. “I am so sad that we had to bring her into this.”