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Once freed from slavery, African Americans became partners in development of Odessa

Pioneer Mobley was a slaveholder who later helped blacks set up in business. Their relationship is getting new scrutiny in the search for a lost cemetery.

ODESSA — Slavery helped pioneer William M. Mobley build and run the plantation that later grew into the community of Odessa.

Once freed, the people he enslaved contributed to the growth, establishing a rural African American community near today’s Gunn Highway and Race Track Road. Mobley helped them.

But now, it appears the connection may have been even more direct.

“I am his descendant,” said Michele Houston-Hicks, who says her great, great, great grandmother had children with Mobley while enslaved.

Houston-Hicks is looking into these historical links as new interest is raised in forgotten black cemeteries across the Tampa Bay region. One of them is the Keystone Memorial Park Cemetery on land now occupied by the Bay Tree Farm horse ranch, 9201 Gunn Hwy.

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

Archaeologists are preparing to search for graves on the property soon using ground-penetrating radar.

Houston-Hicks wants it made clear that the people buried there, even if their final resting place may have been forgotten, were pioneers who made a good life for themselves. And while the road through the area may carry Mobley’s name, she said, he had partners.

“My ancestors helped make the area what it is today,” said Houston-Hicks, 56, a family historian who lives in Odessa. “They built a church and a school and stores and businesses. It is important to pass that history on.”

There are no historic records yet available that establish an ancestral link with Mobley. But there are documents that point to a connection.

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

One record from 1860 shows Mobley owned 13 enslaved African Americans but it does not name them, said Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center. Among them was a 14-year-old girl.

“In 1870, depending on timing, that girl could be 25,” Kite-Powell said.

That’s the age listed in the 1870 census for Lavilla Allen, Hicks’ great, great, great grandmother. She was living on Mobley’s 2,000-acre timber and cattle plantation, where she was employed as a laborer, according to the census.

A number of records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times refer to the woman as Lavilla Allen, but Houston-Hicks said her family knows her as Savilla Allen.

“The spelling of my slave ancestor’s name probably depended on whoever was taking the census at that time,” she said.

Michele Houston-Hicks has gathered census records that indicate her great, great, great grandmother, enslaved by Odessa pioneer William Mobley, may have had a child with him. This record shows that the woman, Lavilla Allen, lived on Mobley's plantation. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

By 1870, the Civil War had ended and people once enslaved were counted in census records.

Allen had five children, 6 months to 9 years old, the census said. There is no mention of a father, but he would have been a white man, Houston-Hicks said, because the children are identified as mixed — both black and white. Still, the census listed Allen as mixed.

“She was black,” Houston-Hicks said.

The 1880 census did report her as black. By then, she’d moved from Mobley’s plantation but stayed nearby, giving birth to two more mixed children. No father was listed.

Allen’s 1917 death certificate also listed her as black and her occupation as “house wife,” but said she died single rather than married or widowed.

The death certificate for Lavilla Allen indicates she was a single mother. It's one of the records gathered by Allen's descendant and family historian Michele Houston-Hicks of Odessa. [ ]

“Our family history says ‘Old Man Mobley,’ as we call him, was the father" of Allen’s kids, Houston-Hicks said.

He treated them as equals, she said.

“He took all his children, black and white, to church together in a wagon."

In a 1993 article about Odessa’s history, the Tampa Tribune interviewed descendants of Mobley and Allen. They agreed Mobley had owned Allens as slaves but there was no mention that they might have had children together.

Curtiss Wilson, 91, who grew up in the area and is connected to the Allens through marriage, said it was a “well-known rumor" that the Mobleys and Allens "were biologically connected.”

Houston-Hicks said she and other Allen descendants have talked with the Mobleys through the years. The Times could not reach anyone in three phone calls and a text message to people believed to be members of the Mobley family.

Related: Sheriff’s divers pull grave markers from lake near forgotten black cemetery

At some point, Mobley gave 20 acres to the Allen family.

Houston-Hicks said her great, great grandfather Rollie Allen purchased another 81 acres, where his wife Barbara Allen planted the area’s first citrus groves. They stocked a farm store that served the community, Houston-Hicks said.

The Allens also worked alongside one of the region’s most prominent families, near Brooksville, she said.

“Rollie and his brother Dave Allen also rode with the Lykes brothers, tending their cattle. They helped the Lykes brothers make their fortune."

The Lykes company, according to its website, now owns 610,000 acres used for cattle, citrus and other industries.

“Rollie even gave his son the middle name Howell, after his friend Howell Lykes," patriarch of the family empire, Houston-Hicks said.

The Allen family married into another family, the Lewis family, who were enslaved before moving to the Odessa area in the late 1800s.

Tony Lewis homesteaded 20 acres where he established the Keystone cemetery and the Mt. Pleasant AME Church. The church doubled as a school. Each served the African American community during that era of segregation.

The church building was struck by lightning and burned around 1920. To replace it, Barbara Allen donated neighboring property for construction of the Citrus Park Colored School. The school served as a house of worship on weekends.

Over the next few decades, other family members added to the number of African American businesses in Odessa.

“My Uncle Rollie Sr. owned a gas station and a corner store,” Houston-Hicks said.

Rollie Allen Jr. started an animal hospital.

Curtiss Walker’s family opened the lakeside, 15-room Walker Motel and Beach Resort, the only lodging in the area for blacks.

Leona Allen Houston and her husband Robert Houston founded the Azalea Country Club with live music and a restaurant.

A 1966 advertisement for the Walker Motel and Beach Resort, one of the businesses started by African Americans to serve the Odessa area's black community. [ Times (1996) ]

“It was a real tight-knit community," Houston-Hicks said. "Everyone who lived there was like family even if they were not family.”

Over time, businesses closed and the families sold land, including the cemetery.

The cemetery’s final days were in the mid-1960s, Houston-Hicks recalled. Earlier oral histories placed the time a decade earlier.

Houston-Hicks would walk through the cemetery with her great grandmother Claudia Lewis and marvel at the crude markers — slabs of concrete defining grave corners and rocks etched with names and dates for her to run her fingers across.

Still, she said, the simplicity of the cemetery did not mean those buried there were paupers.

“They were influential people who did something important,” she said.

They included her great, great, great grandmother Savilla Allen and cemetery founder Lewis.

Houston-Hicks has long wondered whether the bodies were moved. She is eager to learn the truth.

"They built a community. They should not be left and forgotten.”

Michele Houston-Hicks can remember the location of the forgotten Keystone Memorial Park Cemetery because she walked it as a little girl. Today, the land is occupied by the Bay Tree Farm horse ranch at 9201 Gunn Hwy. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]