TAMPA, Fla. — With thousands of missing graves from several destroyed African American cemeteries throughout Tampa, the city created a new task force to adopt policies and ownership concerns when these sites are discovered on public and/or private property, city spokesperson Adam Smith said Thursday.
The city task force comes on the heels of a newly-formed state task force created to research similar cemeteries across Florida.
The state committee was inspired by archaeologists’ findings of several hundred graves from Zion Cemetery at Robles Park Village, a towing company lot and parcel of land belonging to businessman Richard Gonzmart.
Archaeologists believe there are even more graves than they were able to detect.
"We wanted to make sure that we had a consolidated effort, and a strategic approach in how we intake these concerns, and how we address them,” said Ocea Wynn, administrator for Tampa’s Neighborhood and Community Affairs Administration.
Zion Cemetery is just one of archaeologists’ recent discoveries. In late 2019, crews confirmed 145 graves from Ridgewood Cemetery in a field at King High School, and there are reports of at least 1,200 more graves missing from the College Hill Cemetery at 26th Street and 24th Avenue on property belonging to the Italian Club.
“They reached out to us,” said Wynn, who added that the city suggested the club work with the African American Cemetery Alliance of Tampa Bay. “The reason why we made that suggestion is because this is a group that is spearheaded with professionals from nonprofit organizations with the University of South Florida, with people who have worked…in this space before…”
Wynn said the task force is comprised of city employees from the Arts & Cultural Affairs Division, legal department, Parks and Recreation Department, and the Office of Government Affairs.
The city is also spearheading a community design process for temporary and permanent memorials at the site of Zion Cemetery. Additionally, Wynn said the city will oversee maintenance at Memorial Park Cemetery in the 2000 block of East Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Archaeologists who helped uncover graves at Zion said the city’s involvement is vital to rectifying the policies that erased many of the cemeteries in the first place.
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“I think ultimately, the responsibility lies at municipal government as well as any level of government. There’s a responsibility to be intentional about this process, and that’s what it sounds like the city of Tampa is starting,” said Jeff Moates, an archaeologist with the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida.
"Having the conversation is a good place to be, and hopefully it stays there...but ultimately, these are pieces of property that require care in perpetuity, and that always hasn't been afforded to the African American community,” he said.
The task force is scheduled to have another meeting within the next few weeks.
Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for lost African American cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area, head to 10tampabay.com/erased.