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Could Tampa’s Memorial Park Cemetery be full of unmarked graves? Archaeologists think so

The century-old all-black burial ground has at least 6,000 headstones, but it is unknown how many unmarked graves are there. The city is working to find out.
Aerial photo of where the city of Tampa has hired archaeologists to search empty swaths of the all-black century-old Memorial Park Cemetery for lost graves.
Aerial photo of where the city of Tampa has hired archaeologists to search empty swaths of the all-black century-old Memorial Park Cemetery for lost graves. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 3, 2020

TAMPA — Memorial Park Cemetery covers 20 acres, much of it open land.

Archaeologists hired by the city of Tampa now believe that there may be unmarked graves around the entire property. So far, they’ve used ground-penetrating radar on about 10 percent of it.

How many unmarked graves could there be in the century-old all-black cemetery at 2225 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Tampa?

“A lot," said Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, which led the effort. "I think it is nearly full. Just about every open row we have done is populated with graves.”

Moates will next analyze his scans and provide the city with the total number of unmarked graves discovered in those areas. He’d have to return and scan the entire cemetery for a full count — but that call is up to the city.

“We are doing our due diligence and evaluating the situation,” city spokesperson Ashley Bauman said. “We called for this evaluation of the cemetery. We are still awaiting a report.”

Memorial Park Cemetery was opened in 1919 for African-American. There are countless veterans buried there as well as African-American pioneers who helped build Tampa.
Memorial Park Cemetery was opened in 1919 for African-American. There are countless veterans buried there as well as African-American pioneers who helped build Tampa. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

The city hired the archaeologists as part of an effort to take over the abandoned cemetery.

Its owner, John Robinson, died nearly a year ago. He bequeathed the cemetery to family, but they did not want it.

Since then, the city has taken on maintenance but is suing Robinson’s estate to recoup those costs while working through the courts to gain ownership of the cemetery. If successful, the city will then hand Memorial over to a nonprofit that it is working to create.

Related: Tampa moves to take over troubled Memorial Park Cemetery, but only for a while

The nonprofit will maintain the burial ground but likely not sell new plots, assistant city attorney Scott Stigall said. Still, they’d honor existing burial contracts.

“The nonprofit would want to know what land is available for those," Stigall said.

Archaeologists were asked to scan a portion of Memorial for an understanding of the situation.

“Right now, it looks like only the edges could be used for new burials," Moates said.

News of the unmarked black graves disheartened Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP.

“Those are people buried there,” she said. “Who are they? We need to know and then we need a memorial listing them.”

Ray Reed is on the job.

It was Reed who discovered death records for the lost and forgotten all-black segregation-era Zion Cemetery. What and where was it, he wondered.

Related: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

The Tampa Bay Times then went looking for the 2½ acre Zion and discovered that a portion of the Robles Park Village housing project plus warehouses and a tow lot along the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. sat on the cemetery’s former land.

But the Times could not find records indicating the burial ground was moved.

Archaeologists later confirmed it was not. Around 300 graves were detected with ground-penetrating radar, and it is believed as many as 800 are there.

Reed is now sifting through death records for mentions of Memorial Park.

Aerial photo of where the city of Tampa has hired archaeologists to search empty swaths of the all-black century-old Memorial Park Cemetery for lost graves.
Aerial photo of where the city of Tampa has hired archaeologists to search empty swaths of the all-black century-old Memorial Park Cemetery for lost graves. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The Florida Genealogical Society once walked the cemetery and documented nearly 6,000 headstones, but the latest grave on that list is dated 2005 and there have been burials in recent years.

“The genealogy society documented the headstones,” Reed said. “But what about those without headstones? I’ll find them and there will be a lot. They were burying 300 to 400 a year for the first seven or eight years."

During those inaugural years, a memorial was erected to honor black soldiers killed during World War I due to the volume of those men interred there.

This effort to find unmarked graves at Memorial comes at a time when the Tampa Bay area has discovered lost cemeteries on both sides of the bridge over the last year.

Besides Zion, Ridgewood Cemetery was discovered on Tampa’s King High School campus. That burial ground was for the indigent but was nearly all black.

Then, 44 graves from an unnamed all-black cemetery were found on unused property on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street and owned by the Pinellas County School District.

There might also be lost all-black cemeteries in Clearwater Heights, an Odessa horse ranch and on MacDill Air Force Base.

Related: IN SEARCH OF LOST CEMETERIES: Read the Tampa Bay Times reporting on forgotten African American graves.

Rebecca O’Sullivan with the Florida Public Archaeology Network does not think the Memorial graves were lost for nefarious reasons.

Some likely only had temporary markers, O’Sullivan said, and headstones crumbled over time.

“It’s an old cemetery,” she said. “There are unmarked graves in Oaklawn Cemetery, too.”

Established in 1874, Oaklawn in downtown Tampa is the city’s oldest cemetery.

A section in Oaklawn is home to unmarked graves for black people once enslaved in Tampa.

Related: Slavery robbed identities from many buried at Oaklawn. There are moves now to honor them.

Still, Memorial’s late-owner admitted he lacked full records.

The cemetery opened in 1919. Robinson’s family purchased it 10 years later.

The Times spoke to Robinson a few months before he died, asking to check his records from the 1920s for names of Zion burials possibly moved there before that cemetery was first built over in 1929.

He said older records were lost in a fire decades ago.

After Robinson died, Roland Waller, attorney for the estate, told the Times there was no official inventory of burials. Some existing records, he said, are handwritten in notebooks.

Related: With death of owner, future uncertain for Tampa’s troubled Memorial Park Cemetery

Richard Doby might be among those in an unmarked grave.

Considered one of Tampa’s pioneering black leaders, in the early 1900s he built Zion Cemetery and a Hyde Park suburb for African Americans that residents called Dobyville.

Doby died in 1938 and, according to his death certificate, was buried in Memorial.

The Times has walked the cemetery three times in search of his headstone but has not found it, nor could the Florida Genealogical Society during its effort.

“It’s sad,” cemetery researcher Reed said. “It breaks my heart.”