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Rose Hill Cemetery nominated for the National Register of Historic Places

Alfred Quarterman, president of the Rose Hill Cemetery Association, tours the cemetery.
Published Dec. 7, 2016

TARPON SPRINGS — Jutting from the ground near the Rose Hill Cemetery grave of a man who is remembered in history as either Richard Quarls or Christopher Columbus, is a single Confederate flag.

Quarls was a slave, said 87-year-old Alfred Quarterman, president of the Rose Hill Cemetery Association, which has managed the site where African-Americans have been buried for more than a century. His master's name was Richard Quarls, so when he went to fight in the Civil War for the Confederate army, that was the name he adopted. During the war, Quarls lost a leg. He found his way to Tarpon Springs and collected a pension until his death in 1910, Quarterman said. Christopher Columbus was the only other name he knew aside from his slave master's, so he went by that too.

Nearby is the grave of Ruby Copeland, a teacher who died in 1993 and taught at a one-room schoolhouse for black students in Pasco County.

Nearby, the iron bed frame of Morris Lofton, a man who died in 1910 and traveled everywhere by mule with his only possession, sticks out of the ground where it was buried with him.

That history, both century-old and more modern, is why Rose Hill Cemetery has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Quarterman, who took over Rose Hill Cemetery Association in 1992, said putting the cemetery on the National Register has been his life's calling.

"Once we reach that stage then I think I'll have done (what I was sent for) by the Lord," he said.

Tina Bucuvalas, curator of Arts and Historical Resources with the city of Tarpon Springs, who wrote the nomination proposal, said it's important that the site's history is not forgotten.

""This city was founded early on by both white and black populations and a few Hispanics,'' she said. "The Greeks came in later. African-Americans have always been an integral part of the community.''

Many graves are marked with conch shells, reflective of the earliest black populations in Tarpon Springs, she said, which were largely Bahamian and familiar with the sponging industry. Though the Greeks are known for bringing sponge diving to Tarpon Springs, the Bahamian populations were hooking sponges earlier.

Jim Schnur, a special collections librarian and historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said unlike other black cemeteries in the area, Rose may be one of the first at a single site, where bodies have not had to be disinterred or relocated.

"Rose Cemetery is a cultural treasure during a time of segregation that served a community that has an important part in Pinellas history," he said. "The cemetery came about when separate but equal was law, but separate but unequal was practice."

Schnur said having the site recognized by the National Register will bring light to the issue of black cemeteries during the Jim Crow era.

"It would get us to talk about a story that doesn't get talked about," he said. "Even when a person passes, they didn't have the right to choose where their bones would finally rest."

Quarterman said his own grandfather was not able to travel around with his grandmother, who was white, he said. He'd have to sit at the back, while she sat in front. Quarterman's grandmother, however, is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery.

"There was a lot of prejudice and separation throughout," Bucuvalas said.

But in other ways, Bucuvalas said, the community was perhaps more progressive than others.

Schnur said the ethnic make up of Tarpon Springs included Southern whites, African-Americans, Afro-Bahamians, white Bahamians and Mediterranean Greeks among others. Much of the black population, he said grew up speaking Greek, early on.

"When the Greeks came, the Greeks and blacks worked together for the early part of the century," Bucuvalas said. "Greeks were not considered white either. This community is not without prejudice, but perhaps less so than others."

In recent years, Schnur said patterns of residential segregation and the dissolution of the sponging industry have pushed the communities further apart than they once were, but Tarpon Springs still had the first and only black mayor in Pinellas County in David Archie, Bucuvuluas said.

The earliest recognizably marked grave at Rose Hill is dated to 1904, but historians believe that people began to use the site for burials as early as the 1870s, according to the Historic Register proposal. African-Americans from elsewhere in Pinellas County, who couldn't find a plot in their own city, often would be buried at the site. There are more than 1,100 graves at the site, Quarterman said, and in 1999, 220 unmarked graves were uncovered.

Maggie Miles, 51, whose cousin sits on the board of the Rose Hill Cemetery Association and whose grandfather Willie Richardson — the first African-American to work for the city of Tarpon Springs — is buried there, said having the site recognized is important in making sure the memories of those buried there are eternal.

"If we don't know where we come from, we don't know where we're going," she said. "Every grave here has a story."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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