Tampa Bay’s lost black cemeteries are hallowed grounds of history. That’s why officials in Tampa need to explore what happened to the ST. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery. Hundreds of Black residents may have been abandoned at the burial ground. The community owes these souls a reckoning, and doing right is hardly a monumental task.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo reported this week, Jeraldine Williams may be linked to two erased Black cemeteries. While chronicling her family tree last year, Williams learned her great-great-grandmother was buried in Zion Cemetery, the segregation era burial ground discovered under a Tampa housing project. A Times investigation identified Zion’s location, and archaeologists confirmed that bodies remain there. And Williams emailed the Times that “my great-grandfather, Eli McCall, was buried in another Tampa cemetery that no longer exists.” She asked the Times to help find it.
The Times can’t say with complete certainty that the cemetery is still there, but numerous clues indicate that it likely is in the 3400 block of Genesee Street in East Tampa, under four homes and the Greater Mount Carmel AME Church parking lot. It’s about 2.5 miles east of Zion, an extensive search of public records shows. So far, there is no evidence that anyone moved the more than 400 Black residents buried there through 1940. But there is evidence that graves remain.
The Times sifted through thousands of death records, land deeds, newspaper archives, lawsuits, government statutes and other records, yet the discovery didn’t surprise some of those who own properties that make up the cemetery footprint. Sisters Sylvia Baker and Sandra Jean Badgett own two of the houses there, and both said they suspected they could have lived atop a cemetery after bones were found in the 1950s. If the gravesite is confirmed it would join the growing list of recently discovered burial grounds across Tampa Bay, including six sites that archaeologists confirmed as homes to forgotten graves of pioneering Black communities.
Losing these graves to the past is bad enough; how some came to be abandoned is another painful snapshot of Florida’s racial history. Established in 1896, the St. Joseph Aid Society was a national Black fraternal organization that sought to improve the lives of post-Civil War Black residents. Members were eligible for financial aid, life insurance, college scholarships and burial assistance. The state eventually became the land’s trustee, and under a 1937 state law meant to collect back taxes from property owners, the cemetery was auctioned away — even though cemeteries were not supposed to be taxed. The land was separated into parcels and developed in the 1940s and ‘50s.
The St. Joseph Aid Society Cemetery was not the only cemetery to be wrongly taxed under the new state law. But Hillsborough County had no African-Americans in elected office looking out for the Black community. No one petitioned for the taxes to be canceled. Wrongly levied taxes played a role in the erasure of three other Tampa Bay Black cemeteries. That’s why there’s unfinished business here for state and local government.
Cemetery researcher Ray Reed found 430 death certificates for the cemetery, and none of the names were associated with any known local cemeteries. Greater Mount Carmel said it would allow archaeologists to roll ground-penetrating radar across the parking lot to search for graves, but the church cannot afford to do it itself.
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The county and state should arrange for deploying radar at the site; what ultimately happens is a separate question. Researchers first need to confirm the presence of graves. There’s no reason to wade deeper into this sensitive matter until any graves are actually found.
State and local officials, family members and the property owners involved can discuss any future steps later. But it’s time to document what happened here, both for history’s sake and out of respect for these pioneering Tampa families. As state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, noted: “Florida has challenging parts of its past,” and discrimination lingered even after death. There’s certainly no need to prolong it.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.