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Headstones in a lake? On an Odessa farm, signs of a forgotten black cemetery.

Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery was established by a freed slave in the early 1900s. By the mid-1900s, it had disappeared.
At her Bay Tree Farm property near Odessa, Carolyn Wilson looks out over "Suicide Lake," as it once was known. Fraternities would conduct initiations at the lake because there are said to be tombstones piled at the bottom. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
At her Bay Tree Farm property near Odessa, Carolyn Wilson looks out over "Suicide Lake," as it once was known. Fraternities would conduct initiations at the lake because there are said to be tombstones piled at the bottom. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 21, 2019
Updated Jan. 13

ODESSA — There’s no sign of a cemetery on Carolyn Wilson’s land. Just green grass, a barn and more than a dozen racehorses put out to pasture.

Wilson has heard there are headstones here, though, piled up at the bottom of a pond that college fraternity members called “Suicide Lake,” back in the days when they would sneak in for a night-time dive as a rite of initiation.

And somewhere on Wilson’s 130-acre Bay Tree Farm it’s likely that 75 or more people from pioneering black families in Odessa were buried during the first half of the 20th century.

One East Tampa woman who used to live nearby remembers it. Curtiss Wilson, 91, no relation to the property owner, said her father tried in vain to save the burial ground by sprucing it up after new white landowners said it could no longer be used as a cemetery.

A glimpse of the memorial park Zion Cemetery could become again

And a report on Tampa cemeteries issued in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration describes a “Keystone Memorial Park (Colored) Cemetery,” 7.5 miles south on Gunn Highway from the Odessa post office and two-tenths of a mile to the left down Woods Road.

The post office building and Woods Road are gone. The headstones disappeared.

As for the bodies, “Nobody moved anybody," Curtiss Wilson said. “They are still there.”

Curtiss Wilson of East Tampa attended Mt. Pleasant AME Church in Odessa as a girl and remembers her first funeral at the nearby cemetery, on property now known as the Bay Tree Farm. "Nobody moved anybody," said Wilson, 91. "They are still there." [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Now, nearly 70 years later, emboldened by renewed interest across the Tampa Bay area in forgotten African-American cemeteries, Curtiss Wilson is calling on Carolyn Wilson to have archaeologists survey her land for graves.

Afterward, Curtiss Wilson said, she hopes some type of memorial can be erected.

The two women have never talked about the cemetery. But informed by the Tampa Bay Times of the request, Carolyn Wilson said, “I am not going to fight this. I want to know.”

See how the stories of forgotten cemeteries have unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

A developer and the namesake of an art gallery at the University of South Florida, Carolyn Wilson purchased the Odessa property at 9201 Gunn Hwy. in 1981. She later heard there might have been a burial ground somewhere on the land.

She reached out to a small church that once operated the cemetery, Mt. Pleasant AME Church in Odessa, but never heard back, she said.

Earlier this year, she figured someone would contact her because of the widespread attention that followed the discovery by the Times of forgotten Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground. Buildings were erected atop Zion even though as many as 800 graves are still there and plans are underway to turn the property into a memorial.

The Odessa land’s previous owners, the Woodard family, ran a monument company, so Carolyn Wilson’s story about the headstones could describe company debris tossed into the lake. But state records indicate the company operated out of Jacksonville.

Or the story may arise from the clearing of the Keystone cemetery. The burial ground was near the lake, but exactly where isn’t clear.

“If bodies are there," Carolyn Wilson said, "it is sacred.”

Mordecai Walker, 95, remembers walking through the forgotten Keystone Memorial Park Cemetery to reach this lake and pick flowers for girls. The lake is on property now known as Bay Tree Farm. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The story of the Keystone cemetery begins in the 1860s when Tony Lewis — freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation — homesteaded the property, according to a history provided by the Mt. Pleasant AME Church.

In the early 1900s, Lewis established the cemetery and built a church that doubled as a school for African-Americans living in the rural area during the era of segregation. Charlie Walker, Curtiss Wilson’s father, was a minister with the church.

The church building was struck by lightning, caught fire and burned around 1920. Parishioner Barbara Allen donated neighboring property at 9703 Gunn Hwy. for a new school.

Walker petitioned the Hillsborough County School Board for supplies to build what became the Citrus Park Colored School. Curtiss Wilson and her brother Mordecai Walker attended.

The little red schoolhouse opened in 1925 and, in a reversal of roles, it was used by Mt. Pleasant AME for services. In 1947, a separate church was built on the property.

The community continued burying its dead at the cemetery Lewis had established nearby.

The building that now is the fellowship hall at Mt. Pleasant AME Church in Odessa first opened as the Citrus Park Colored School. The church once operated a forgotten African-American cemetery on the other side of the trees. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Walker, 95, who now lives in St. Petersburg, recalled walking from the school and cutting through the cemetery to reach the lake and pick flowers for girls.

Curtiss Wilson, his sister, said no sign identified the burial ground but it was known as the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. Some of the grave markers were temporary and washed away in the rain, others were granite headstones.

Many graves were covered in poured concrete right after the funeral, Wilson and Walker said. They estimate there were 50 to 75 marked graves and more that were not marked.

Lewis the homesteader died in the early 1900s and was buried at the cemetery.

The next owner was church member David Allen, according to property records filed at the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office, though it is unclear when he bought it. In 1924, Allen sold the land to William Twitt, the county tax assessor, according to property records.

Twitt was white and had no connection with the church, Walker said, but he allowed the black community to continue using the property as a cemetery.

Twitt offered to sell the land to the church for $200, Curtiss Wilson said, but the congregation couldn’t raise the money. The Times could not locate any descendants of the Twitt family.

The last burial Curtiss Wilson recalls was Emma Lewis, daughter of the homesteader, in 1937.

Twitt sold the property to Ernestine Woodard in 1941, according to property records. Her brother Robert Woodard Sr., who would become mayor of Temple Terrace, later became a partner.

The Times placed calls to Woodard’s son, Robert Woodard Jr. of Land O’ Lakes, but his wife, Angela Woodard, said he had nothing to say because the events played out before he was born.

Asked whether the cemetery disappeared while it was owned by her father-in-law, Angela Woodard said, “That is not something he would have done. My father-in-law was a very respected man. Everybody knew him as Mr. Temple Terrace and as a very giving man."

Curiously, the 1941 sales deed said the land “shall not be used ... for the burial of bodies of domestic animals or human beings."

Still, the cemetery remained intact through the early-1950s, said Mattie Ford, 77, who attends Mt. Pleasant AME and lives nearby. Ford had relatives buried in Keystone, including homesteader Lewis, her great-grandfather.

Ford said she is certain the bodies remain on the land.

“Don’t you think I’d know if they were somewhere else?" she said.

Brother and sister Walker and Wilson had moved away by the time the cemetery disappeared. Their father told them he had planted flowers and pulled weeds there, hoping to keep the burial ground presentable and buy more time.

But at some point after that, the cemetery disappeared from view. Walker and Wilson didn’t know why or how. All they knew was what they were told: No one could afford to move the caskets, so the bodies remained.

“It sat there for so long,” Curtiss Wilson said. “Mr. Tony was dead. All the older people were dead and nobody did anything about it."

Curtiss Wilson would go on to establish Wilson Funeral Home. She learned about death records in her work, and how a new one is issued any time a casket is moved from one cemetery to another.

She has never found a record indicating a relocation for Emma Lewis; or for twins Jacob and Esau James, who died at birth and were buried in Keystone in 1933; or for anyone else she knew.

She said she has long wanted to make public the existence of the Keystone cemetery but she didn’t think anyone would care.

Carolyn Wilson said she cares.

She wants to mark the location of the cemetery somehow, so this final resting place can remain undisturbed.

“They are welcome here,” she said. “If graves are there, they are at peace. This is a peaceful place.”

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