Feb 16, 2022 - News

Scoop: New evidence points to dozens more forgotten cemeteries around Tampa

The overgrown corner of an East Tampa cemetery. Photo: Octavio Jones/Axios

The overgrown corner of an East Tampa cemetery. Photo: Octavio Jones for Axios

We've lost a great number of our buried dead due to negligence, greed and racism. Now comes a reckoning.

Driving the news: University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle has discovered evidence of 45 unmarked and forgotten or abandoned cemeteries in and around Tampa, a disproportionate number of them for African American residents.

  • That's in addition to the headline-grabbing discovery in recent years of two forgotten African American cemeteries containing hundreds of burials: Zion at the Robles Park public housing project and Ridgewood on the King High School campus.

Why it matters: Cemeteries are protected by law and are among our most significant cultural spaces, like outdoor museums providing links to ancestry, heritage and place.

  • When they are lost, those links are broken. And when the loss is deliberate, it reminds us that racism follows some to the grave.

State of play: Across the region, parking garages, sports arenas, condominium developments, schools and public housing projects have been built on top of burials or or have displaced them.

The latest: Kimmerle, an associate professor and executive director of the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, worked for more than two years on the project and will present her findings to Hillsborough County commissioners at a 9am meeting today.

  • Axios reviewed the findings and accompanied Kimmerle, widely known for excavating the Boot Hill cemetery at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, as she did her fieldwork at a handful of locations where historic maps showed a graveyard, but no modern markers indicated burials.

The big picture: The Tampa discoveries make it reasonable to assume there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of lost or forgotten cemeteries across the South, Kimmerle said.

What happened: Disappearing from maps, and memory

Concrete markers near a fence at a cemetery for indigent or unknown persons on North 22nd Street in Tampa.
Concrete markers near a fence at a cemetery for indigent or unknown persons on North 22nd Street in Tampa. Photo: Octavio Jones for Axios

When the historic Zion and Ridgewood African American cemeteries were discovered under a public housing complex and a public high school in 2019, Tampa and Hillsborough County officials began asking how many other lost cemeteries were on public land.

Yes, but: No central agency has maintained that information since the Village of Tampa came to be in the late 1840s.

How it worked: Kimmerle and a team at USF reconstructed the population structures and burial practices of various settlement clusters around Tampa over more than a century.

  • They overlaid maps — U.S. Geological Survey maps, historic property plats, cemetery schematics, historic aerial photographs and modern satellite imagery — until the digital mergers revealed where lost, destroyed or built-over burials are now.
  • Then they searched for any mention of cemeteries or graveyards in public records like tax deeds, undertaker reports, death certificates, insurance maps, slave rosters and newspaper obituaries, and tried to locate them on maps and in the field.

State of play: Of the 45 unmarked cemeteries and burial grounds newly discovered:

  • 14 sites were historically classified as African American, Afro Cuban, "colored" or "negro."
  • Three sites had "white" and "colored" sections — specifically Afro Cuban, "mulatto" and Chinese.
  • 15 sites, many of them family plots, were classified as "white."

Yes, but: Just 14 have geolocation data, meaning they can be accurately located. The remaining 31 have approximate locations or no known location.

Of note: One possible burial site is now a parking lot at Raymond James Stadium.

  • 10 cemeteries were located in municipalities that no longer exist, like Montana City in East Tampa, and have been filled by housing.

Why it happened: neglect, greed, racism

The Marti Cemetery in West Tampa looking toward Columbus Avenue, and a strip mall beyond.
The Marti Cemetery in West Tampa, with a strip mall just north of it. Photo: Octavio Jones/Axios

While some smaller burial lots and family cemeteries were lost to abandonment and neglect when properties changed hands, many African American burial grounds were destroyed because of predatory land practices that racially divided American cities from the 1930s to 1950s, Kimmerle tells Axios.

  • Cities, housing and sports authorities, and road developers took African American–owned property through eminent domain, so communities were forced to abandon cemeteries.

Kimmerle found the telltale signs of intentional erasure: the removal of headstones, the removal of cemetery references on land titles, and the disappearance of burial sites from maps.

Yes, and: She also found that some were disturbed by development, like the northern border of the urban Marti Cemetery in West Tampa, which appears to have given way over time to development and Columbus Avenue.

  • Still others were lost when adjacent property rights were sold for housing development — which is what happened at the All People Cemetery on North 22nd Street in Tampa.

What's next: Continuing the work

Borders appear to have changed over the years around the L’Unione Italiana Cemetery and Centro Espanol Cemetery in East Tampa. Photo: Octavio Jones/Axios
Borders appear to have changed over the years around the joint L’Unione Italiana Cemetery and Centro Espanol Cemetery in East Tampa. Photo: Octavio Jones for Axios

The USF report recommends that Hillsborough County conduct more property title research, GIS modeling and spatial analysis, and bioarchaeological fieldwork to find the 31 graveyards with missing or approximate locations, and account for the graves in cemeteries that have receded to development.

  • That would mean using a shallow archeological trenching technique called ground-truthing to locate burials.
  • Kimmerle also recommends using aerial drone surveys, LIDAR mapping and ground-penetrating radar to locate lost graves, and using the USF library as an open-access online repository for historic materials and interactive maps.

The rub: The report does not account for Antebellum burial grounds for enslaved people on ranches and plantations in the county, nor burial grounds from the Reconstruction-era convict lease camps.

Yes, but: State Rep. Fentrice Driskell and state Sen. Janet Cruz, both Tampa Democrats, have introduced bills that could uncover such burial grounds.

  • Their bills — SB 1588 and HB 1215 — would create an Office of Historic Cemeteries in the Department of State to provide grants and coordinate the state's efforts around abandoned cemeteries.

What they're saying: "I'm carrying this bill on behalf of every African American Floridian family whose grave was stolen, abandoned, lost or forgotten," Driskell said in a news conference to announce the legislation.

Quick take: The legislature has been inclined recently to support efforts to find and preserve forgotten African American cemeteries, and even voted for a dedicated task force, but these most recent bills ask for an unspecified amount of money for staff salaries and grants.

  • Cruz and Driskell acknowledged to Axios that the biggest challenge will be convincing lawmakers to fund the office.

What we're watching: Will county leaders and the state legislature move to put the framework in place to find and preserve these important spaces?


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