What does the past mean today? What does the paving over and erasure of cemeteries mean to all of us? And what can we do right now and right here in the Tampa Bay area to bring dignity to the deceased? These questions are being posed by the African American Cemetery Alliance of Tampa Bay, a grassroots alignment of the community and community institutions, scholars, educators and local policy makers, focused on finding, locating, marking, memorializing and educating people about erased African American cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area.
During any given day, about 40,000 vehicles travel across Interstate 175 into downtown St. Petersburg. How many of those drivers know they are cruising over the former site of three burial grounds — Moffett, Evergreen and Oaklawn? These cemeteries, like others in our community, were founded during a period in U.S. history when racial segregation was legal, cemeteries were typically segregated or partitioned along racial lines, and “white-only” spaces from cemeteries to parks to schools meant Black people were excluded from access or use. This segregation limited burial options, often dictating location, legal/legislative protections and resources available for perpetual care and upkeep.
Today, many African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area are unmarked, erased from the physical landscape or paved over in the name of urban development. The alliance calls for an expansion of Tampa Bay history to include recognition and preservation of Black cemeteries as sites of education and remembrance. It starts with an open dialogue with community members concerned about the impacts of redevelopment on sacred spaces in our community. We encourage the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa to engage in direct community consultation before major decisions are reached concerning Oaklawn, Moffett, Evergreen, North Greenwood, St. Matthew’s Missionary Baptist Church, Ridgewood and Zion cemeteries.
Burying and memorializing the dead is one of the most basic and fundamental expressions of our shared humanity. African American graves and cemeteries discovered under parking lots, schools, highways and housing complexes are alarm bells ringing. They are our call to action to bring dignity to the deceased.
We ask city planners and governmental organizations charged with oversight to acknowledge that many of these cemeteries, our cemeteries, were lost, erased or under-resourced and, in some cases, never documented. It is time to listen to families, communities and people talking to people about cemeteries being found. They can tell us what it feels like, looks like, and means to know that the deceased lie unmarked, unnamed, and often under structures that make it impossible for us to know they ever existed.
The alliance is working to bring dignity to families and communities. We seek to make erased cemeteries visible. Most importantly, the alliance seeks to make the reasons why African American cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area have been lost a part of an important public discussion about the future. Join us, support us and follow us as we share stories and lessons learned. Let’s do our part to answer the call to action to learn from and acknowledge Tampa Bay’s complicated past. We are working to create a future where every life is afforded dignity and Black cemeteries are found, marked and memorialized.
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Shannon Peck-Bartle directs the Rose Hill Cemetery Place-Based Learning Project and is an educator with the Hillsborough County School District. Professor Antoinette Jackson chairs the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. This column reflects the shared opinions and support of members of the African American Cemetery Alliance of Tampa Bay. Find more information at https://www.aacatb.org/