TAMPA — Bob Martinez recalls playing war as a child along Columbus Drive, jumping in and out of a dozen empty graves and pretending they were foxholes.
It was the 1940s and the land was a neglected northern section of the Martí/Colón Cemetery, divided by Columbus Drive.
“We never saw a headstone or anyone exhume or bury a body,” said Martinez, 85, the former Florida governor. “It was always just an overgrown area."
The block would later become a city park and then a strip center. But people were buried there, by the hundreds.
Many believe the bodies still are there — beneath the asphalt roadway, the sidewalks and the 22 stores at 3115 W Columbus Dr.
“It is more than a rumor,” said E.J. Salcines, 81, a retired judge, West Tampa native and historian. “It is almost like an accepted myth. Is it true? I don’t know."
Henry Echezabal, an 88-year-old native of Ybor City and retired survey company owner, said he has no doubt.
To prove his case, Echezabal has spent 20 years amassing a collection of Martí/Colón documents — maps, death certificates, photographs, court transcripts and news articles.
“A lot of people just say things,” he said. “I verify it. I have the documents.”
Academics have pored over the research Echezabal donated to the University of South Florida’s Library of Special Collections. They agree he might be right because no one has found evidence that large numbers of graves were ever relocated.
“This is such a Tampa thing,” USF librarian Andy Huse said. “Everyone talks about it under their breath but has never done anything about it.”
Jack Rodriguez, who developed and now manages the strip center, said it’s all just a rumor but one he’s heard since he put up the buildings more than 30 years ago.
“We never hit anything when we built it," he said. “That is all I can go by. I never even gave a second thought since then.”
But some of the business operators think bodies could be there.
“All the old timers talk about it," said Steve Kinney, owner of the House of Fades barbershop. “I think it’s true.”
Carlos Rivera, owner of the Who’s Next barbershop, hears the stories, too.
“Yeah,” Rivera said, “I have people tell me all the time.”
Hilda Hernandez, 64, another West Tampa native, chatted about the cemetery recently while eating at La Oriental Bakery. Children had a nickname for the block when it was a city park, she said: Dead Man’s Field.
It’s a name also remembered by three others with ties to West Tampa — Mario Nuñez, 61-year-old host of the Tampa Natives Show, who grew up near the neighborhood; Maura Barrios, 70, West Tampa native and historian; and K.R. Lombardia, 68, another native.
Martinez said he never heard the nickname.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco, 35, who represents West Tampa, said he was raised on the story.
It’s time to find out, Maniscalco said, now that work finally is underway to commemorate two other forgotten cemeteries — Zion Cemetery on North Florida Avenue, believed to be Tampa’s first African American cemetery, and Ridgewood Cemetery on the King High School campus, for indigent people, most of whom were black.
“It would be best to take a second look as a sign of respect to the deceased and their families,” he said, “just to be sure there are no remains.”
Today, the city of Tampa maintains the 5.6-acre Martí/Colón Cemetery but shares ownership with three others.
Patrick Thorpe owns two acres and supports a search for graves, but said this won’t fix everything.
“To what end will further study absolve our collective conscience about the location of these burials?” he said. “Locating them now isn’t going to amend what was done.”
Echezabal’s research shows bodies were first buried around 1895 on the property that’s now home to the strip center. In 1903, J.L. Reed Sr. purchased that land and more to create Martí Cemetery, around 12 acres at the time. The narrow dirt road called Michigan Avenue separated the northern and southern sections.
Reed sold the cemetery in the mid-1930s to the city of Tampa. The city paved Michigan Avenue and it was renamed Columbus Drive.
The cemetery was renamed Martí/Colón, with Colón as the southern portion and Martí the northern part.
Martí is named for José Martí, who visited Tampa from Cuba some 20 times from 1891 to 1894 as he planned the revolution against Spain, and Colón is named for Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.
Reed promised to move more than 100 burials that stood in the way of the road improvement. The city certified that the reburial was done properly.
Still, in a deposition before the sale, Reed admitted there were likely unrecorded burials “that would be impossible ... to know the places of.”
Researcher Echezabal also questions whether all the known graves were moved.
“I think they just removed headstones,” he said.
For proof, he presented handwritten correspondence he obtained through a public-records request to the city of Tampa. The letterhead says, “From the desk of Diana Kyle,” and it reads, “Could not find grave even w/ AP Boza.”
Boza was the funeral home that managed the cemetery for the city through the 1960s. Diana Kyle was deputy director of city’s parks department in the 1990s.
The letter continues, “They determined she was under the road because Reeves never moved the bodies only the headstones."
Kyle, who no longer works for the city, did not respond to two voicemails left with her by the Tampa Bay Times.
The letter references the grave of one female but hundreds could be buried still in the northern portion, said Justin White, a librarian with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who used Echezabal’s research to write a paper on Martí/Colón to be published in the Tampa Bay History journal.
“I think the only way we can know for sure is to use ground-penetrating radar,” White said.
In 1940, white residents of West Tampa petitioned the city to stop burying African Americans in the northern section of Martí/Colón.
“The northern section was abandoned as a result,” White said.
Then in 1959, a privately owned sanitation company dumped raw sewage onto the land, sparking outrage among those who remembered people were buried there.
J.L. Reed Jr., son of the Martí Cemetery’s founder, told reporters at the time that hundreds of paupers were still buried in the northern section. Boza the former Martí/Colón manager was also quoted and identified the northern portion as the black section.
Scandal rocked the cemetery in 1990s, too, when the city acknowledged that bodies had been buried on top of other bodies there and that its records could not help in locating many missing graves.
In his research, Echezabal has found death certificates for nearly 160 African Americans with Martí/Colón listed as the burial place. No graves bearing their names can be found in the cemetery today.
Echezabal believes the northern section was for all races because among the missing graves is the burial place of Francisco Milian, the white mayor of West Tampa when it was a city. Milian died in 1908.
In 1960 as the northern section was converted into a park, the city told reporters that all the bodies had been exhumed — all seven of them.
“I suspect these are just the seven with visible headstones,” White said. “Memories apparently fade quickly in West Tampa. Nothing was said of the potentially hundreds of graves.”
Rodriguez the developer said people from West Tampa protested when he sought to build his strip center, claiming bodies were there. But he said the city assured him it was a myth.
“Ever hear of the 11th and 12th commandments?" Echezabel said with a chuckle. "The 11th is, ‘Though shall not get caught.’ And the 12th is ‘Though shall not confess.’ That’s what’s has gone on for years in this city.”