TAMPA — Patrick Thorpe made a unique Craigslist purchase last year: two acres of the Marti/Colon Cemetery for $9,500.
The owner had wanted to build a house there. There were no graves on this portion of the 5.6-acre cemetery, 3110 W Columbus Dr.
Neighbors and families with a stake in the cemetery opposed the idea and managed to stop it.
Thorpe was on their side, so when he saw the online ad, he bought the land to protect it from future development.
Now, Thorpe wants to help other old, at-risk cemeteries by setting up a nonprofit to care for them.
Among locations that stand to benefit from this approach is the Memorial Park Cemetery, 2225 E Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., whose owner recently died, and the Zion Cemetery, recently rediscovered under a portion of Robles Park Village apartments.
Thorpe expects to hear about more old private cemeteries falling into neglect in the coming decades as revenue dries up once they reach capacity.
“I am one person trying to correct mistakes,” said Thorpe, a 35-year-old Tampa architect. “But I can’t do this alone."
He’d like to see the city of Tampa purchase at-risk cemeteries and a nonprofit manage them through a trust financed by grants, donations and burial proceeds.
Thorpe estimates Marti/Colon has room for several hundred burials, thousands if columbariums are built for the interment of ashes in urns.
But the city of Tampa has made it clear it has no desire to buy more burial grounds.
Thorpe says he could seek grants or other means to make the buys himself.
Marti/Colon, as one example, has four owners — Thorpe, the city of Tampa, the trust of late funeral-home owner A. P. Boza and Gokul Prabhu, who lives in Phoenix, Md.
Still, Thorpe isn’t ready to give up on the city of Tampa.
“If the city owns it, then it is guaranteed that the land will never be touched again. If a person or company owns a cemetery, there is no certainty for it. If I own one and die, then what?"
That’s the case with the segregation-era Memorial Park Cemetery, final resting place for some 6,000 African-Americans. Many of them are veterans, buried as far back as World War I.
Memorial’s longtime owner John Robinson died in June, his family doesn’t want it any more, and the estate’s attorney says there is no money to maintain it.
Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera has spoken to several leaders in the veterans community about organizing some “man and woman power out there for labor.”
“Many of those veterans in Memorial served in a time when they literally couldn’t be served” at white-owned businesses, Viera said. “Yet they fought and gave it their all for this country. We owe them so much.”
The city has performed maintenance at Memorial Park three times in the past few months “to provide the proper dignity and respect for those whose final resting place it has become,” city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said.
The city will now pursue a claim against the Robinson estate for those costs, Bauman said.
Roland Waller, attorney for the estate, did not return calls from the Tampa Bay Times.
There is precedent for using government grants to save endangered cemeteries, said Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
The state of Florida provided Deerfield Beach nearly $1 million to purchase a 3-acre African American cemetery with some 300 unmarked graves and another half-million dollars to turn the land into a memorial park.
“This is an excellent model to follow for Zion,” Moates said.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Catch up on all the news about Zion Cemetery from the Tampa Bay Times
Zion Cemetery had been forgotten for decades before a June 23 report in the Tampa Bay Times. Since then, a survey using ground penetrating radar has discovered nearly 130 caskets buried on a portion of the 2½-acre site along North Florida Avenue.
Zion is believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground, with room for 800 graves. It was established in 1901 and disappeared from public view two decades later. A public housing complex, storefronts and warehouses have been built on top of it since then.
Now, the Tampa Housing Authority wants to demolish the apartments on the portion of the land it owns and work to establish a memorial park with the man whose company owns the rest of the property, restaurauteur Richard Gonzmart.
Bauman has said that if the property owners want it, the city favors the formation of a non-profit to control and operate memorial grounds there.
Even with a nonprofit in charge, though, city backing is needed to land government grants for the work, Moates said.
Council member Viera said he plans to speak with Thorpe about the nonprofit idea for Memorial Park Cemetery.
“That cemetery is an issue of great historical and moral importance,” Viera said.
“My position is the city should act as a safety net. If the private owner doesn’t take responsibility, the city should partner with community groups to maintain its dignity.”