TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The community is reacting to news that city of Tampa lost control of the historic African-American cemetery, Memorial Park, to a property developer.
Located at 2225 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Memorial Park, is a cemetery that his been a part of the Tampa community for 104 years. It’s a historic African American cemetery with many notable Black figures buried at the site.
“The first freed slaves from families are in this cemetery, Mr. Middleton from Middleton High School is buried here, but what’s most important to me is, my mother is here,” said Norene Miller. “When we buried her here, it was an intention she would rest in peace and I would not have to stand here and beg the city of Tampa to purchase this cemetery.”
Miller has a dozen family families buried at Memorial Park.
“My grandfather is here, grandmother Mary Miller, my brother Jeffrey and my cousin Eric Wiggins and my namesake great grandmother are in this area,” she showed while walking through Memorial Park.
That’s why Miller was devastated after learning the city lost control of the cemetery to a property developer, known to flip properties.
“For me, my heart is broken that I’m advocating for my dead loved ones,” Miller said. “I’m very proud of my family’s history being here, but right now at this time I’m very angry that they have allowed this cemetery to go.”
For more than a century, the cemetery was privately owned. In 2019, the owner died and is family did not want to take over the maintenance for the property. That’s when the city of Tampa decided to take over the maintenance. In an effort to buy the property, the city foreclosed the property, put a lien on it and bid $9,800 to purchase it. In February, an online auction took place. There were two active bidders, but within 10 minutes, a private developer bid $18,000 and now owns the property.
According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office, Alex Artaega, owner of 2715 West Sligh LLC is the new owner. Artaega declined an interview with WFLA.
Ocea Wynn, Tampa’s Administrator of Neighborhood and Community Affairs, said no one from the city monitored the auction or counterbid.
“We were shocked to know that someone had outbid us for this property,” Wynn said.
Wynn said the city didn’t see why someone would want land they could not legally develop on.
“We were surprised because we thought this would be an opportunity for us to do what is right by the community to assume ownership of the cemetery,” Wynn said. “We did what we thought was the best thing to do and that was to put the property up and come back and bid on it ourselves.”
She says the lesson in all of this is to no longer assume anyone wants to buy a cemetery.
“That’s the lesson learned for us going forward, following the bidding process and not assuming that no one wants to own a cemetery,” she said.
Legally, the developer can not build on top of a cemetery. However, the community still feels let down by the city.
“If that’s all the value you have on the contributions on blacks in the city of Tampa, shame on you,” Miller said. “Our family members deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They’re dead, but they gave their life, blood sweat and tears to Tampa, I’m not going to settle for that.”
Miller wants to see the city take ownership of the cemetery. She wants them to conduct research to see how many graves are actually buried there and she wants a fence built around the property.
Wynn told 8 On Your Side if the city can buy the property back, they will conduct ground penetration radar to detect all graves, as well as build a fence around the property.
The city is awaiting negotiations with the Artaega in an effort to buy the property from him.