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City leaders fear Memorial Park Cemetery could become the next Zion

The owners want to abandon the African American cemetery in east Tampa, where around 6,000 people are buried.

TAMPA — People are shocked and saddened to hear the story of Zion Cemetery, the African American burial ground where some 800 people were interred before it disappeared as white developers built on top of it.

But a modern-day version of the story is playing out now, say researchers working on the Zion project — and at a much larger scale.

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

Zion Cemetery, founded in 1901 and erased by 1929, was believed to be Tampa’s first all-black burial ground. Memorial Park in east Tampa, where around 6,000 people have been buried since 1919, is the second.

In November, the owners of Memorial Park filed a court petition to abandon the 20-acre burial ground at 2225 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., saying it’s too much for them to handle.

“If we want to see a cemetery that is being lost in real time, look at Memorial Park," said Eric Prendergast, principal investigator with private archeology firm Cardno, speaking in December before the Tampa City Council. "The grass is growing, and soon we’ll have another Zion unless somebody steps forward and takes responsibility for that.”

The city of Tampa has done just that, spending some $15,000 on Memorial Park since July — 800 staff hours plus other expenses. But city officials say they can’t maintain the cemetery forever. Tampa already spends around $100,000 a year on city-owned cemeteries —Jackson Heights, Marti/Colon, Woodlawn and Oaklawn.

Still, said city attorney Gina Grimes, “I am determined that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Zion.”

So is Ronald Sheehy, who has relatives buried in both Memorial Park and Zion.

“It needs to be saved,” said Sheehy, 74, of St. Petersburg. “It is there to memorialize those buried there. We can’t lose that.”

Memorial Park is the final resting place for much of Sheehy’s family. And his uncle’s baby was buried at Zion in 1916, one of just five people there whose descendants the Tampa Bay Times has been able to identify. University of South Florida researchers are trying to find more.

The first buildings went up in 1929 and Zion was soon forgotten until a Times report in June sparked an archaeological survey that detected hundreds of graves there.

Ronald Sheehy of St. Petersburg has family buried at Memorial Cemetery and wants to see it protected. He also learned recently that a relative was buried in the forgotten Zion Cemetery. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Memorial’s longtime owner John Robinson died in July and, through his estate, he left the cemetery to his niece Wendy Scolaro and nephew William Robinson III. But neither of them wants the burial ground.

In a petition for divestment filed in Pasco County, listed as the home of the estate, the two say their late uncle maintained the giant cemetery on his own. They say they have neither the time nor the money to do so.

Still, “the owners just can’t walk away from it" and leave the financial burden to the taxpayers, assistant city attorney Scott Stigall said. “That’s not the way it should be treated.”

The heirs of the man who owned Memorial Park Cemetery in east Tampa are trying to abandon the property. The city of Tampa is scrambling for a way to continue maintaining the African American burial ground, the final resting place for more than 6,000 people. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

The city filed a lawsuit against the Robinson estate in Hillsborough County to recoup its costs and filed an objection in Pasco County to the petition for divestment.

The Times sat down earlier this month with the four city attorneys working on the case. A reporter left two voicemails for Roland Waller, attorney for the Robinson estate, but he did not return the calls.

The estate, according to its petition, “believes that this property is valueless, or of such small value that the cost of taking possession, storing, insuring, and protecting it is substantially in excess of its value."

The property is valued for tax purposes at just $100 by the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Related: With death of owner, future remains uncertain for Tampa's troubled Memorial Cemetery

What’s more, the petition says, the cemetery records are a mess, “handwritten and dating back to the early 1900′s.” The cost of digitizing them is estimated at $20,000, which the niece and nephew do not have, according to the petition.

“The property cannot be sold unless and until a determination (is made) of who owns what burial plot,” according to the petition.

Patrick Thorpe agrees. Thorpe owns part of the Marti/Colon Cemetery, 3110 W. Columbus Dr. in Tampa, and said the Robinson estate approached him about buying Memorial Park a few months ago.

“I told the attorney from the start I was not interested, and when he told me there were no real records, I was even less willing to discuss,” Thorpe said.

Still, in its written objection to the petition, the city notes that the market value of the land on the property appraiser’s records is $416,000, much higher than the taxable value of $100. The reason: The taxable value dropped when Robinson declared some years back that he would no longer sell cemetery plots there, assistant city attorney Ron Wigginton said.

The city insists in its objection that the estate does have the “means and resources to care for and maintain the cemetery.”

Licensed burial grounds in Florida are required to establish a care and maintenance trust to ensure future maintenance. According to the city, Memorial Park has nearly $250,000 in its maintenance trust.

“You think it would be for a situation exactly like this,” city attorney Grimes said.

People still are burying their loved ones at Memorial Park in plots purchased previously and families visit on a daily basis to lay flowers and pay their respects.

Among recent burials there was Willie Robinson Jr., former owner of the historic Jackson House in Tampa’s former black business district, who died in June.

The state of Florida, through its Board of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services, can “pierce that trust, but only for licensed cemeteries,” assistant city attorney Kristin Ottinger said. But Robinson allowed his license to lapse in 2016, so the trust no longer falls under the board’s jurisdiction.

Under state law, burials are allowed in unlicensed cemeteries if they are performed by a licensed funeral establishment.

Memorial Park Cemetery was established in 1919 for African American veterans of World War I. They are honored in a monument at the cemetery. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

The Robinson estate has every right to divest its interest in the cemetery, said Grayson McCouch, an estate law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“When someone dies, the heirs can certainly disclaim any assets they don’t want to take,” McCouch said.

The property is passed on to another heir.

Related: Their ancestors were forgotten as Zion Cemetery faded from view. Now, they want answers.

But the estate’s petition is signed by nine heirs — the niece and nephew plus their children, all of whom are seeking to divest their interests.

If no other heir steps forward, the cemetery becomes unclaimed property to be sold through the Hillsborough County Probate Court. The Florida Department of Financial Services would keep the proceeds from the sale in an account for 10 years to allow time for any interested heir to step forward.

Under state law, a new owner could only develop the land by first moving the graves to another burial ground — a costly prospect for a property the size of Memorial Park.

“Tens of millions,” estimated Cardno’s Prendergast.

No new burial plots can be sold there until records are sorted out and a determination can be made of how many are available.

As of now, a new owner could not gain access to the cemetery trust.

This all might make the property difficult to sell, said McCouch, the Florida professor.

What happens if no one buys it? None of the people interviewed for this story, including six real estate attorneys, had an answer.

“Out of the many possible outcomes, the state could end up owning the property,” said Wigginton, the assistant city attorney. “Ultimately, hopefully, it will be sold or transferred by deed to a person or entity that will care for, maintain and preserve the dignity of the sacred grounds."

The owner of Tampa's last operating segregation-era African-American cemetery has died and his family no longer wants to run it. The Sheehy vault is the resting place for Samuel Sheehy who was a prominent doctor. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Meantime, the city is looking to state leaders for help

“We need legislation to address this situation,” Grimes said. “This won’t be the last time this happens."

State Sen. Janet Cruz, the Tampa Democrat, has sponsored a bill that would create a task force to find and preserve lost African American cemeteries like Zion. But Memorial does not fall under that category.

The state put together a commission in 1999 to deal with abandoned cemeteries, estimating there were around 1,500 in Florida at the time. Reasons for abandonment, the commission said, included economic failure and lack of funds.

Florida adopted some of the commission’s short-term solutions, such as allowing local governments to maintain the burial grounds. But the state never took up a recommendation to create a nonprofit organization that would maintain abandoned cemeteries.

“Nobody wanted the nonprofit,” said Jim Miller, a historic preservation consultant who served on the commission. “It was a very large commitment of time and money."

Miller now sees any statewide approach to the challenge as unrealistic.

“Instead, it needs to be one cemetery at a time on the local level,” Miller said. “The community needs to connect with families, neighborhood associations to build a long-term solution for each cemetery.”