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How a Depression-era work program is helping find lost cemeteries

A Works Progress Administration report on veterans’ graves turned up three sites now under study as possible African-American burial grounds.
Robert Cook, left, and Stetson Kennedy record the story of Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy in Ybor City during 1939 as part of a Works Progress Administration effort to document life histories and folk culture. The agency also surveyed cemeteries to find veterans' graves, producing a statewide report that has proven useful in the search for lost cemeteries in Hillsborough County.
Robert Cook, left, and Stetson Kennedy record the story of Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy in Ybor City during 1939 as part of a Works Progress Administration effort to document life histories and folk culture. The agency also surveyed cemeteries to find veterans' graves, producing a statewide report that has proven useful in the search for lost cemeteries in Hillsborough County. [ Times archives ]
Published Jan. 2, 2020|Updated Jan. 13, 2020

TAMPA — A Depression-era report on the locations of veterans’ graves throughout the United States has been used to identify three sites that may turn out to be forgotten African-American cemeteries.

The report may take on added value if lawmakers pass a bill sponsored by state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, creating a task force to find African-American cemeteries throughout Florida.

“It is an instance where the intent was to do one thing but it has been quite useful for another reason,” said Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center.

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

The federal Works Progress Administration was established to create employment at the height of the Great Depression.

“The government paid for those things that were needed, both practically and culturally,” Kite-Powell said.

The WPA funded construction of projects such as Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands and St. Petersburg’s City Hall.

But it but also paid artists to paint murals, scholars to collect oral histories and researchers to compile what was called the Veterans Graves Registration Project.

The project was a state-by-state search for the location of military veterans’ graves.

Issued in 1941, the report lists each veteran’s name, military rank, war, birth and death date, and place of interment. It also provides detailed written directions to each cemetery.

African-American names are denoted with asterisks and their cemeteries are described as “colored.”

To show the research was thorough, the report also lists cemeteries where veterans were not interred.

“It became a cemetery directory,” Kite-Powell said.

Related: Records show a black cemetery might lie beneath MacDill Air Force Base

A preface added to the report some years later says that “many of the cemeteries” listed, “especially the older ones in rural counties are now ‘lost.’”

Among those might be the Port Tampa Cemetery for African-Americans.

According to the WPA, you reached the cemetery by starting at the corner of Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, heading south 884 feet, turning east and going 1,327 feet.

Those directions indicate it was on land that is today part of MacDill Air Force Base.

The history center’s Kite-Powell recently tipped the base to the possible existence of a cemetery there. The military will begin a search for it this month.

This federal document from 1941 places an African American cemetery on land that today is part of MacDill Air Force Base
This federal document from 1941 places an African American cemetery on land that today is part of MacDill Air Force Base [ Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

Two other cemeteries that may have been forgotten also appear on the WPA report — Keystone Memorial Park Cemetery for African-Americans on land that is now an Odessa horse ranch and the College Hill Cemetery for Cubans and African-Americans on what is now a vacant lot within the Italian Club Cemetery in Ybor City.

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Related: College Hill might be a cemetery lost within another cemetery

“It is a tremendous resource,” said Becky O’Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. O’Sullivan used the report to locate the College Hill Cemetery.

Still, World War II intervened with the research so the resource is an incomplete one.

The project was halted by “America’s pre-war national mobilization," according to the preface.

What’s more, 15 of Florida’s 67 counties were not surveyed. Pinellas is among them.

A map of the Florida counties that were surveyed as part of a Works Progress Administration effort to document where veterans were buried.
[Florida Public Archaeology Network]
A map of the Florida counties that were surveyed as part of a Works Progress Administration effort to document where veterans were buried. [Florida Public Archaeology Network] [ Florida Public Archaeology Network ]

And while Pasco made the cut, the report lists just one all-black burial ground there — titled simply Colored Cemetery and now known as the Old Trilby Colored Cemetery in Dade City.

“I doubt every African-American in Pasco was buried in that one cemetery,” O’Sullivan said.

The report also only documents cemeteries of the 1930s, so it does not include Ridgewood Cemetery in Tampa, a final resting place for indigent people from 1942-1954. Ridgewood recently was rediscovered on the southeast corner of Tampa’s King High School campus and ground penetrating radar confirmed graves there.

Related: Radar finds 145 graves buried beneath King High School in Tampa

Nor does the WPA report list Zion Cemetery, an all-black cemetery established in 1901 and erased from public view in 1929. Radar has confirmed that bodies remain at Zion, where more than 800 people were buried and now the site of a public housing complex and warehouses.

The Tampa Bay Times first identified Zion’s location using old maps, city directories and news archives.

That same approach can be employed to find lost cemeteries not included in the WPA report, Kite-Powell said.

Related: In search of lost cemeteries: It began with Zion

Some African-American neighborhoods in the early 1900s might have had their own cemeteries, he said.

“To find those, you’ll need to narrow that search.”

Old city directories place asterisks next to any building connected to African-Americans — homes, schools, churches and businesses, for example.

A concentration of asterisks in an area would indicate it was a black neighborhood.

“They might have had a cemetery,” Kite-Powell said. “Then we can look to maps or for oral histories to know for certain."

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