Lost, forgotten, ignored: Uncovering Tampa’s African American cemeteries

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The old saying goes, dead men tell no tales. But from Tampa’s Robles Park public housing community to King High School property and parts unknown, the dead seem to be speaking.

Fred Hearns, Tampa Historian

“Our ancestors are reaching out and are telling a story,” NAACP President Yvette Lewis said.

The confirmation of at least two lost African-American cemeteries in Tampa raises some important concerns and questions – like how did it happen?

Yvette Lewis
Hillsborough NAACP

Tampa historian Fred Hearns walks an area where hundreds of graves lay beneath buildings built more than seven decades ago: The Zion Cemetery. It’s the final resting place of people of color unceremoniously ignored.

“There was no voice crying out in the wilderness saying, before we build, let’s make sure there’s no truth to these stories or maybe there is some truth to these stories. It just didn’t happen in the 50s,” Hearns said.

And people definitely knew it was there.

A 1920s era map at the University of South Florida, from Authentic Atlas, clearly shows the existence of Zion with hundreds of burial plots and a Potters Field.

Surrounding it was an African-American neighborhood.

“The African-American neighborhoods were being torn apart by eminent domain and torn apart to create housing for white citizens of this area. So, as a result, there is no voice, no one to stop this from happening,” USF Librarian Drew Smith said.

USF Librarian

Why? Because, more than black and white, green – the color of money – was the color that ruled the times.

“The land was valuable. It was ripe for development and so it happened and you have to remember in the early 1950s, there were no African-Americans who had any real political clout,” Hearns said.

Miles away at MacDill Air Force Base, a similar grave concern. The cemetery search for proof starts there in mid-February.

“We’re taking our time and we’re making sure we do everything right. We’re hiring experts and we’re really looking at the area so that we can do right by the families if there are folks buried here and do right by them because that’s what they deserve,” said Lt. Brandon Hanner.

MacDill is using archaeologists and cadaver dogs to search for any sign of a cemetery on the five-acre swath of land.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, State Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) has proposed a bill that allocates $500,000 to fund cemetery research. It would also allocate dollars for memorials as well as funeral and reinterment costs for next of kin for any lost souls found.

State Sen. Janet Cruz
(D) – District 18

“That money would be used to fund research through the University of South Florida and Florida A&M University, mostly archaeological research where we can do so more research and uncover some lost souls,” Cruz said.

It’s a conversation that won’t end here as more and more discoveries are being made and underground secrets are revealed.

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