Castor apologizes for Tampa’s role in erasing Black cemeteries

Past administrations taxed the cemeteries out of existence.
Mayor Jane Castor speaks at a news conference at Memorial Park Cemetery to address the city’s role in the upkeep, care and protection of privately owned and city cemeteries.
Mayor Jane Castor speaks at a news conference at Memorial Park Cemetery to address the city’s role in the upkeep, care and protection of privately owned and city cemeteries. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 14, 2022|Updated Jan. 14, 2022

TAMPA — Past city of Tampa administrations had a direct role in erasing at least two of the historic Black cemeteries that have been discovered in recent years.

At a news conference on Friday, Mayor Jane Castor apologized for the actions of those past administrations when the Tampa Bay Times asked if the city should issue one.

“We can’t right past wrongs but certainly we can acknowledge those and apologize for the wrongs of our community in the past,” she said.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, has been requesting that apology since 2019. That’s when the segregation-era Zion Cemetery for Black burials was discovered under Robles Park Village, warehouses and a tow lot.

When informed of the mayor’s statement, Lewis said she accepts “the words, but now we need action to back up those words. People suffered. The African American community suffered. What will the city do?”

That’s why the news conference was called.

Standing in East Tampa’s recently abandoned Memorial Park Cemetery, the city detailed plans to ensure that Tampa cemeteries are better protected.

“The time is always right to do what is right,” Castor said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

Her office’s efforts include forming a City of Tampa Cemetery Task Force charged with studying the issue.

City of Tampa neighborhood and community affairs administrator Ocea Wynn said the task force was formed in response to the Times’ investigations into erased cemeteries.

The city has already implemented one of their task force’s recommendations by changing the land use category for city-owned cemeteries to park lands and open space. Those had been categorized as municipal.

The new designation restricts development on the properties, said Stephen Benson, director of the City Planning Department.

The city has already changed the land use for Woodlawn Cemetery and Oaklawn Cemetery and for their piece of Marti-Colon Cemetery. They are in the process of changing Jackson Heights Cemetery’s category.

Bensen said the city will compile a list of privately-owned cemeteries in Tampa. The city will help owners ensure those cemeteries have proper protection against future development or erasure and help change the land use on properties where erased cemeteries are discovered.

Memorial Park is not owned by the city, but they have saved the century-old cemetery for Black residents after the owner died in 2019 and his heirs divested themselves of it. The city has taken over maintenance — trimming trees, cutting the grass and replacing dilapidated fences.

The city also touted their work to honor Tampa’s erased Black cemeteries.

They helped start a nonprofit to restore and preserve Zion and then contributed $50,000 to the cause of erecting a memorial on the site.

Still, Zion was erased in part due to past administrations.

In the 1920s, the city levied new taxes on Zion as well as College Hill Cemetery, which was for Black and Cuban burials and located under what today is the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot.

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When the Black owners did not pay the fees, the city reverted the property to previous owners, who were white. The city then waved those taxes on Zion, stating that cemeteries are not supposed to be taxed, and issued building permits for the property. The headstones were removed, but nearly 1,000 bodies are likely still in the ground.

It’s unclear if the city waved the taxes on College Hill, where 1,200 were buried.

The Italian Club has yet to say whether they will have their parking lot surveyed for hidden burials.

If a bill to help protect and find abandoned and erased cemeteries is passed, the state could require access for investigation on land when there is credible evidence that an erased cemetery might be there.

“The steps that we are taking are not going to right past wrongs,” Castor said of the city’s measures, but will ensure “we will not have lost or abandoned cemeteries in the future.”