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‘Those young people out in the street inherited our rage’

Four lost black cemeteries have been found in the last year. There could be more. What does this say about the Tampa Bay area’s history?
A grave marker in Tampa's Oaklawn Cemetery for a lynching victim.
A group of local elected officials, historians, pastors and civil rights leaders want to erect a monument honoring all Hillsborough County's racial lynching victims.
A grave marker in Tampa's Oaklawn Cemetery for a lynching victim. A group of local elected officials, historians, pastors and civil rights leaders want to erect a monument honoring all Hillsborough County's racial lynching victims. [ Paul Guzzo | Times ]
Published Jun. 5, 2020

TAMPA ― It happened again on Wednesday.

For the fourth time in the last year, the Tampa Bay area learned that graves from a lost black cemetery were discovered.

News of the latest, in Clearwater, came against the backdrop of local civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer. It has become a call for the end of what protesters say is systemic modern racism.

This area must now atone for past sins so modern wounds can properly heal, some local civil rights leaders and elected officials say.

An apology would be a good start, said Yvette Lewis, head of the Hillsborough County NAACP.

“How about our leaders say they are sorry that past leaders looked the other way when our cemeteries were destroyed?" said Lewis, 40. “I haven’t heard one.

“I don’t know those people buried there in the cemeteries. But I feel their pain. They didn’t have a voice. Neither do we today. It is all connected. This area will never heal until they understand the tragedy and the hurt they have inflicted on African American people for generations.”

Historian Fred Hearns at a section of Oaklawn Cemetery where Tampa's enslaved people are buried  [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Historian Fred Hearns at a section of Oaklawn Cemetery where Tampa's enslaved people are buried [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The year of discovery of lost black cemeteries has been eye-opening for Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP.

While growing up in San Diego, Atkinson, 52, said, he didn’t consider the Tampa Bay area to be part of the “Deep South where racism was high. It is unimaginable that within this small geographic area that four black cemeteries were left behind."

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Fred Hearns, 70, chronicles black history in Tampa Bay. He says there was a calculated effort by past white city leaders to write their own history of this area as a place where racism didn’t exist.

“But you can’t hide the truth,” Hearns said. “It will be dug up. Those young people out in the street inherited our rage. Until we tell the whole truth, there will always be a lingering evil — like the cemeteries — waiting to pop its head up.”

• • •

Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, 42, agrees it is time for this area to stop hiding its ugly past.

“When we see outrage today, it is partly based on that history,” Viera said. “What does a good American do when confronted with this history? A good American builds bridges."

That’s why Viera, along with State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, is working to erect a memorial that will honor black people lynched in Hillsborough County from the 1850s through the early 1900s. There are at least six cases in that timespan.

Today’s civil unrest shows that “America has not dealt with its racist past,” said Driskell, 41. “And so now we see the murder of George Floyd that is akin to a modern-day lynching and it is impossible to ignore. That is why the lynching memorial is so important. Awareness helps to ensure things like this don’t happen again."

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, talks at the Mayoral Panel on the Equal Rights Amendment in 2019.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, talks at the Mayoral Panel on the Equal Rights Amendment in 2019. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The first lost all-black burial ground to be discovered was Tampa’s Zion Cemetery in August. Historians and archaeologists say there is no doubt it was nefariously erased. Nearly a century ago, a white developer removed the headstones, but not the estimated 800 graves. Later, a portion of Robles Park Village and storefronts were built over the cemetery.

It remains unclear how the others were lost.

Ridgewood Cemetery, found on Tampa’s King High School campus, might simply have been forgotten by the Hillsborough County School District. It was charged with the upkeep of those 250 graves upon purchasing the land in 1959. Though the cemetery was for paupers, all but a few burials were black.

There was an effort to move the other two in the 1950s, both located in Clearwater — an unnamed all-black cemetery on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street on property now owned by the Pinellas County School District and the latest, the all-black St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery on land now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

It is possible only unmarked graves were left behind — at least 44 on the school property and at least 70 at FrankCrum.

But those who grew up near the cemeteries said for decades that graves were still there.

“No one listened," Atkinson of the Clearwater NAACP said. “The older generation is frustrated because they never had a voice. And now their kids are frustrated. So, we have to right those old wrongs. We need that foundation going forward. If we don’t, it’s like building a house on sand as opposed to on a firm foundation."

This image is a 3D laser scan of Robles Park Village showing subsurface results in relation to the buildings.  The red and/or blue rectangles represent buried objects in the shape of graves superimposed on the 3D imagery. 
[Courtesy of Cardno]
This image is a 3D laser scan of Robles Park Village showing subsurface results in relation to the buildings. The red and/or blue rectangles represent buried objects in the shape of graves superimposed on the 3D imagery. [Courtesy of Cardno]

This area needs to keep looking for lost black cemeteries, he said.

There could be three more — under MacDill Air Force Base, an Odessa horse ranch and the Columbus Center shopping plaza in West Tampa.

“Seven? We could have seven?” Atkinson said. “What does that say?”

Joe Joseph, of the Georgia-based archaeological society New South Associates, specializes in lost African American cemeteries. He is not aware of another area with so many found — and possibly still lost — black cemeteries.

But that is likely because they’re not looking. If other cities compared the total headstones in segregation-era black cemeteries to the number who died during that time, he said, they’d notice it is disproportional.

“Our nation’s treatment of the African American dead is symptomatic of the systemic and institutional racism that infects our nation,” Joseph said. “When we ignore and destroy African American burial grounds, we are in essence saying, ‘You don’t matter, you don’t even exist.’”

• • •

There is now a call to place historic markers at each of the discovered local cemeteries.

Councilman Viera wants this area to do recognize the heroes too.

A start would be to erect a marker at Tampa’s Memorial Park Cemetery telling the story of the many World War I veterans are buried there.

“They fought for this country during the height of lynching,” Viera said. “They are heroes. We don’t do a good enough job of paying tribute to our black heroes.”

The Hillsborough NAACP’s Lewis has something grander in mind. She wants a black history museum.

But, first, Lewis said, black residents need that apology.

“Until they apologize,” she said, "those lost souls will never be at rest and this city can never be at rest.”