He claims ghosts ask him to restore their dignity. So he digs into their stories.

Ray Reed closes the gates to the Cemetery for All People in Tampa. The county's poorest once were buried on the property along North 22nd St. and Reed is working to tell their stories. [BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times]
Ray Reed closes the gates to the Cemetery for All People in Tampa. The county's poorest once were buried on the property along North 22nd St. and Reed is working to tell their stories. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Sept. 20, 2018

TAMPA — Ray Reed claims to see dead people. And he does all he can to introduce them to the living.

Reed leads volunteers who have uncovered hundreds of grave markers at the Cemetery for All People, known in the early 1900s as the Poor Farm Cemetery. It's the place where people were buried when no one would pay for the work or claim the bodies.

Markers there bore numbers but no names and most markers eventually disappeared. Burial records have errors and omissions. So Reed tries to bring memories of the dead back to life, compiling biographies and leading work at the property on N 22nd Street north of Fun Lan Drive-In.

"Some lived to be 100 years old, some barely drew a breath," said Reed, 54, a retired county worker who lives in Old Seminole Heights — two miles from the cemetery. "They were loved by someone but treated like crap when they died. That's wrong."

Reed says their ghosts reached out to him and asked him to help restore their respectability.

He knows people mock his belief in the paranormal. But there's no arguing the tangible results of his work.

In 2017, the Hillsborough County Commission presented Reed with a commendation that reads, in part, "The work that Mr. Reed and his group have done in restoring the respect and dignity of the departed will long endure."

The deceased, Reed said, appreciate his work. As he does research at home, he said, things fall from shelves. He hears muffled voices.

"I see out of the corner of my eyes glimpses of figures. They are not evil. ... They want dignity."

The oldest person known to be buried at the cemetery was 104, the youngest 23 minutes old. The first burial was in 1906, the last in December 1966.

After that, except for mowing, the cemetery was ignored. Soil and grass crept over the stones and they sunk into the ground. Signs identifying the two-acre property disappeared.

Tucked among warehouses and homes, it looked like an empty field, said Reed's friend Susan Elbare. "Kids played football there. Few knew it was a cemetery."

The only reminders of the past were a county list of 839 burials and a pile of broken gravestones.

• • •

In 2009, University of South Florida student anthropologists visited the cemetery. Using ground penetrating radar, they found a few markers and a few news stories resulted. No one picked up the challenge to honor the dead, though, and grass again covered the gravestones.

Then, in 2015, while searching county property for a potential new park site, Reed found the cemetery.

He had recently retired on disability from the county after working with the Hillsborough Health Care Plan, for people who need help paying medical bills.

Reed was appalled to learn about the condition of the cemetery. He said he flooded the office of County Commissioner Sandy Murman with correspondence, asking for her help.

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In large part because of Reed's efforts, the county changed the name to Cemetery for All People in October 2015 and it received local historic designation.

"We're recognizing the people's lives," Murman said during a rededication ceremony. "Everybody is worth something and has value."

As it turns out, though, Reed's work with the cemetery was just beginning. Later that day, he said, as he walked the property, the spirits first came to him.

"I had an incredible sense like bees buzzing. Something was telling me that something wasn't right."

He returned with Elbare the next day, and while strolling the back of the cemetery, she spotted an inch of concrete sticking out of the ground. They scraped away dirt and found a grave marker.

Reed, who uses a cane, fitted a sharp metal object to the tip and started poking the ground.

"Every so often I'd hit concrete and another marker. It was like a game of battleship."

He gathered friends. Scout troops pitched in. Working occasional weekends, they have uncovered 615 of the 839 markers from the county list — all in the back of the cemetery.

It's usually on cemetery work days that the dead follow Reed home, he said.

"Frankly I don't care if anyone thinks I am crazy."

They encourage him to reveal stories as well as stones.

• • •

Reed has scoured news archives, genealogy websites and county records seeking the names on the county list. He fills binders he will one day turn over to the county.

He's found misspellings.

"James Driver," at Marker 744, should be "James Dwyer," for example.

Then there is Marker 671. It appears twice on the county list — one time for Maymie Georgalas, who was white, and another for "Infant James," who was black.

But there is only one Marker 671 — on the side of the cemetery where black people were buried. That means "Infant James," not Georgalas, is likely buried there. Reed also noticed Marker 871 on the white side of the cemetery is not on the list. He thinks Georgalas is buried there.

On the day he made the connection, Reed said, a drinking glass exploded in the back of his cabinet. He attributes that to Georgalas. He has learned she spent six months in Tampa General Hospital before she died there on June 7, 1959.

"Her daughter Velma was in New York City to become an actress," he said.

All but a few of the names on the list were buried between October 1950 and December 1966. According to minutes from an October 1950 County Commission meeting, there was no "complete record" of burials prior to that month.

Reed estimates he has searched more than 200 microfilm rolls of death certificates and turned up hundreds of names of people who may be buried there.

Luther Tromater is one. His body lay unclaimed for 13 days in 1937 before he was buried in the "county cemetery," according to his death certificate.

"County cemetery means Poor Farm," Reed said.

At Reed's request, USF anthropology professor Thomas Pluckhahn brought in a second team of students a year ago.

Examining the front of the property, where no markers have been found, they discovered "anomalies consistent with graves," Pluckhahn said. "It would take excavation to confirm this."

Until then, Reed said, he will continue his work.

"I am not going to go to the other side and look at these people and say, 'Sucks to be you. I could have done something, and I didn't.'"

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.