- Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa, Florida, is a historic, segregation-era Black gravesite.
- After the cemetery’s owner died in 2019, the city took over the maintenance of the property.
- Tampa lost control of the cemetery in January when a property flipper outbid officials at auction.
The city of Tampa, Florida has lost control of a historic Black cemetery it had been maintaining after a property flipper outbid officials in a blind auction.
Memorial Park Cemetery was established in 1919 and is the final resting place of an estimated 11,000 marked and unmarked grave sites, including 6,000 headstones, preservationist Aileen Henderson of the Cemetery Society told Insider.
What makes Memorial Park unique is its designation as a historic Black cemetery, created more than 100 years ago during the segregation era.
“The other unique thing about this particular cemetery is the only cemetery that has a designated Black veterans monument and area where they have just Black veterans that are buried,” Henderson told Insider. “There’s no other cemetery that has a designated section for Black veterans.”
‘No one was interested in taking responsibility for it’
The cemetery had been maintained by its previous owner until his death in 2019, at which point, the city took over the property and Henderson volunteered to help keep up with the landscaping and headstone maintenance, as she does with other cemeteries in the area. She said she discussed with city officials plans for Tampa to eventually transfer the responsibility of the property to a nonprofit — or her organization, which is a not-for-profit — though those plans never materialized.
“The city reached out to a number of community groups and civic leaders to find or organize an organization to take care of Memorial in perpetuity, to give it the care and attention it deserves as a historical landmark,” Tampa spokesman Adam Smith said in a statement emailed to Insider. “No one was interested in taking responsibility for it.”
Henderson told Insider she would have been willing to raise funds and manage the upkeep of the property. Smith did not immediately respond to questions about whether or not Henderson was contacted by the city about taking over the cemetery’s upkeep.
Smith said the city of Tampa placed a lien on the property to cover early maintenance costs and eventually foreclosed in an attempt to take control of its long-term maintenance. As part of the foreclosure proceedings, the cemetery was sent to public auction.
“The city did not expect other bidders, since the property is protected from development and requires ongoing maintenance,” Smith told Insider, adding that the city bid $9,800 on the property, never expecting to be outbid.
Instead, real estate investor Alex Arteaga took control of the land with an $18,000 offer and told the Tampa Bay Times his property-flipping company, 2715 West Sligh LLC, is “looking for a company that can handle” the upkeep of the cemetery, and intends to sell it — likely for a profit.
The market value of the land on the property appraiser’s records was $416,000 in 2020, the Tampa Bay Times reported after the cemetery’s owner died.
“The city of Tampa has reached out to the owner about potentially buying the property from him,” Smith told Insider. “No matter what, Memorial Park Cemetery will forever be given the respect, protection, and maintenance it deserves as a historic landmark.”
Arteaga did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment. The land currently remains open for public visits and, while the property cannot be developed for new buildings, it remains unclear if a new owner could make changes — like selling additional plots or relocating existing ones — in the future.
Officials ‘may as well have spit on those graves’
Henderson only learned the cemetery property had changed ownership after she reached out to city officials to schedule her monthly cleanup of the graves and was told she’d have to make arrangements with the new owner.
“I don’t know how people are not outraged,” Henderson told Insider, adding that Tampa’s mayor, Jane Castor, “may as well have spit on those graves.”
“The community didn’t even get an opportunity to know what was going on,” Norene Copeland Miller, a resident with 12 family members buried at Memorial Park Cemetery, told Spectrum news outlet Bay News 9. “We had to read it out of the paper – and we talk about community engagement, we have a lot of people in Tampa that are interested and want the community to be the best that it can be.”
Miller added, speaking to local news outlet Patch: “I was at peace knowing 35 years ago that my mother was buried there and had a headstone. My mother’s soul is not resting now. I cannot even say how disgusting it is for the city of Tampa to allow this to happen. It never would have happened in another city. The audacity that the city allowed someone to bid on a historic Black cemetery is disgraceful.”
Miller did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The selling of the property to the highest bidder, Henderson said, is particularly disrespectful to the families of the people buried there, and feels like the country’s history of selling Black bodies, living or dead, is “repeating itself over and over again.”
“This isn’t just any property, it’s a cemetery.” Henderson told Insider. “And this isn’t any cemetery, this is a historical cemetery. And this isn’t just any historical cemetery, this is a designated Black historical cemetery. And wait a minute! It’s not just a designated Black historical cemetery, it’s the only designated Black historical cemetery with a monument dedicated to Black veterans.”
Historical cemeteries at risk
Historic Black cemeteries in Florida have been the subject of much debate among historians, researchers, and city officials in recent years as the remains of 328 graves in the city of Clearwater were identified after a supposedly “relocated” cemetery was paved over to make way for an office building parking lot.
NPR reported four forgotten Black cemeteries have been found in Florida in recent years, including the site in Clearwater. In each case, Black residents were told the graves had been relocated.
“Especially with these sites related to African American history, a lot of times there was a lot of institutional neglect, systemic racism that leads to there not being records about these places, too,” Rebecca O’Sullivan, a Stantec archaeologist who worked on the Clearwater cemetery project, told Insider. “So they either never existed or the places weren’t given the same sort of institutional support that white cemeteries or white neighborhoods were given at the same time.”
On June 4, 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that created the Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task Force to study unmarked or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds throughout the state and develop strategies for identifying and preserving the historical graves within. The task force expired on March 11, 2022.
A proposed national law, the African-American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, sponsored by Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina last year, is currently making its way through Congress.
Though the Florida task force is no longer studying forgotten cemeteries in the state, researchers and archaeologists remain hard at work attempting to identify hidden Black gravesites and use historical records to determine who was laid to rest at locations like Memorial Park, where approximately half of the graves do not have intact headstones.
Paul Jones, technical director of archaeology at Stantec, told Insider people often see archaeology as irrelevant to their daily lives, “but what a lot of these projects show is how relevant it can be when archaeology is directed at answering the questions that people today are interested in, like answering questions that descendants have about where their ancestors are buried or their loved ones are laid to rest.”