A few years back, Angela Alderman was out searching for the lost grave of her uncle Frank Martinez — walking among the headstones at Centro Español Cemetery — when she felt his spiritual presence.
“He wasn’t there,” recalls Alderman, 42, a paranormal investigator and former star of the Ghost Hunters International television show. “But he was nearby.”
She didn’t realize at the time how right she might have been.
Alderman now knows that her uncle was buried at long-lost College Hill Cemetery — a final resting place for Tampa’s Cubans and African-Americans. Historians recently uncovered records showing the cemetery’s location was adjacent to the Centro Español Cemetery, 2504 E 21st Ave.
There’s no sign of College Hill Cemetery there now, just a few acres of vacant land. But the land is part of yet another burial ground, the 5-acre Italian Club Cemetery, 2520 E. 24th Ave.
Was one cemetery lost within another?
“We need answers,” Alderman said. “This is a spiritual journey for me and others like me searching for their family."
Survivors of those buried at College Hill have searched through the years for the cemetery.
Their efforts are getting a boost with the renewed interest in lost cemeteries sparked by the discovery of Zion Cemetery, established in 1901 as what is believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground. The graves were left behind, as many as 800 of them or more, as buildings went up atop Zion.
College Hill is No. 4 on a growing list of lost Tampa cemeteries rediscovered this year. First came the 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery, found during development of Water Street Tampa project. Then in June, the Tampa Bay Times revealed the story of Zion Cemetery. And now, the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery is the subject of research underway on the campus of King High School.
“They have always been lost,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center, who is part of the effort to locate College Hill Cemetery. “Now there is a movement to find them.”
The former College Hill Cemetery plot forms the northeast corner of the modern Italian Club Cemetery. A cemetery mausoleum stretches across the back but the rest of the property is used for parking.
The Italian Club considered building a second mausoleum there 15 years ago. In preparation, the club had the land scanned with ground penetrating radar. A survey report indicates no unmarked graves were found. The mausoleum was never built.
The survey did recommend further research on a section of disturbed soil, but the Italian Club did not follow up. A consulting firm that conducted the survey said in an email to the Italian Club, “We don’t believe that the anomaly represents grave sites.”
Still, Rebecca O’Sullivan, a University of South Florida archaeologist who also is researching College Hill Cemetery, said further investigation is warranted. The radar work only covered a third of the vacant land, the portion where the proposed mausoleum was to be built.
“When this survey was done, the Italian Club had no concrete indication that a cemetery once existed on this property,” O’Sullivan said. “So, it makes sense that at that time they wouldn’t have done a more intensive GPR survey over the entire area.”
A closer look at the disturbed land might also determine whether graves were removed from College Hill Cemetery.
“If parts of a historic cemetery on this piece of property were disinterred and moved in the past, that could account for that large area of disturbance," O’Sullivan said.
It’s also possible that the existing mausoleum is on top of graves, O’Sullivan said.
A walk through the mausoleum shows that the first interments there were in the 1970s. If archaeologists wish to take a second look at the property, they should reach out to the Italian Club Board of Directors, said Vince Pardo, vice president of the organization’s cemetery committee.
Still, Pardo said, "I am not aware of our current property ever being called College Hill Cemetery.”
The Italian Club was founded in Ybor City in 1894 as a mutual aide society for immigrants. It provided health benefits, live entertainment and, as of 1896, a cemetery.
The first Italian Club Cemetery neighbored the College Hill Cemetery. Later, the club purchased the College Hill land for expansion but the club isn’t sure when or from whom.
A map from 1891 shows that the property at the northeast corner of today’s Italian Club Cemetery was labeled, “Colored Peoples’ Cemetery.” On a map from 1931, that property carries the label, “Cuban Cemetery.”
The Times found more than 100 obituaries that carry the name College Hill Cemetery from 1896 through the 1930s. Nearly all are Cubans and African-Americans.
A 1941 report on Tampa cemeteries by the federal Works Progress Administration describes the location of College Hill Cemetery as land that today is the corner of the Italian Club Cemetery property.
College Hill was also the name of that community surrounding the cemetery, home mostly to African-Americans in the early 20th century. Both the Italian Club and Centro Español cemeteries are located within the College Hill community.
So it is possible that some obituaries and death certificates listing College Hill were referring to other cemeteries within the community, Kite-Powell said. For example, the death certificate for Levin Armwood lists “College Hill Cemetery” but his grave is in the Italian Club Cemetery.
Perhaps Angela Alderman couldn’t find her uncle’s grave during her search of the Centro Español Cemetery because his headstone there disappeared over time, Kite-Powell said.
“Headstones, sadly, do go missing,” he said. “Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information to be definitive."
Still, Alderman said, knowing her uncle was buried somewhere in the area provides some closure.
As her family’s genealogist, she is working to tell its story. Some of what she finds has been heartbreaking.
A great-grandfather died of food poisoning while waiting to sail from Tampa to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. Another uncle was murdered in a mob hit.
She has been searching a decade for Frank Martinez.
“I needed this happy ending. It broke my heart that he was lost," she said.
"He is a part of my family’s journey even if I never met him. I believe we found him.”