Discovered every day: St. Pete’s lost Black cemeteries

The parking lot at Tropicana Field is where Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th Street and Fifth Avenue South in St. Petersburg. Families of those buried in that cemetery are currently waiting for the results of a survey to locate their loved ones' remains. 

Discovered every day: St. Pete’s lost Black cemeteries

A few months back archaeologists in St. Petersburg began surveying parking lots 1 and 2 at Tropicana Field using ground-penetrating radar, also known as GPR.

Many believe that there is a strong possibility that graves may rest underneath the parking lot where three cemeteries once stood in what was once the Gas Plant District, a predominately African American community in St. Petersburg during the early 20th century.

The site was previously a thriving Black cultural hub for some of St. Petersburg’s early pioneers and their families. The Gas Plant District was home to multiple churches, black-owned businesses and a cemetery which housed the graves of the neighborhood’s black residents.

The burial grounds were known as Oaklawn cemetery, but it also consisted of a couple of other cemeteries: Moffitt Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery. After decades of decay and neglect, the city could no longer afford to maintain the property.

Once the cemetery site was sold, most of the graves were moved to another cemetery, Lincoln Cemetery, in nearby Gulfport. As a result of imminent domain and an urban housing boom, the Gas Plant District was bulldozed, making way for Major League Baseball in the 1980s.

Bodies left behind

For many years it has been rumored that an unknown number of bodies were left behind during the sites first redevelopment phase in the 1960s, because many graves in the cemeteries were unmarked. Some headstones were damaged or lost over time, others simply never existed due to family financial constraints.

Former Gas Plant District residents, like my late grandmother Dorothy Beachum Givens, remembered stories about the lost bodies of the cemetery. I vividly recall her sharing memories of our ancestors who settled in St. Peters- burg at the turn of the century.

Her grandfather, Will Williams, helped paved the first streets and build the first seawall. Born a slave, he never got the respect he deserved in life or in death. A fact that remained evident when the city began exhuming bodies from Oaklawn Cemetery for relocation over 70 years ago.

My family, like many others, were never notified if or where his remains had been reinterred. Till this day, our family still wonders where his remains lie.

Awaiting survey results

Land surveying for possible graves began earlier this summer. According to the City of St. Petersburg’s Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division Manager Derek Kilborn, survey results were due back to the mayor’s office sometime last month. However, those results have yet to be released to the public.

The archaeology team conducting the survey has only examined a small portion of one out of three cemeteries — now covered by a paved parking lot — so there could very well be more graves at the site that have yet to be discovered.

The Evergreen and Moffitt cemeteries stretched further south down 16th Street South, near the present day Fifth Avenue South overpass. Per city staff, only parking lots 1 and 2 at the Tropicana Field site were surveyed, primarily due to a lack of access to the other former cemeteries and budget limitations.

With the redevelopment of Tropicana Field on the horizon, it’s important that we recognize this property for what it is — history. It’s also equally just as important that we do our due diligence and properly fund a full archeological survey of all three cemeteries.

Renewed efforts

Recently, efforts have grown by lawmakers and community leaders to search for Black graves that have become lost across the country due to a long history of racism perpetuated towards people of color in America.

This past June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that will create a panel of researchers to study forgotten or abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds across the state.

The bill (HB 37), introduced by Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell, identifies lost cemeteries by creating a Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries.

It is important that we acknowledge our history and honor the memory of all those who were once buried in these forgotten cemeteries. We must work to ensure that justice is served, not just for our ancestors, but for the families they left behind who are boggling with many unanswered questions.

We need to make sure that we do everything in our power to commemorate their stories and honor their memory, so that our history does not become forgotten again.

If you have any recollection of these former cemeteries or if you believe your loved one was once interred on the site, please con- tact Dr. Julie Buckner Armstrong at University of South Florida via phone: 727-873-4061 or email: jba@usf.edu.

Corey Givens Jr. is an educator, minister and grassroots community activist. A fourth-generation St. Petersburg native, he is heavily involved in numerous advocacy and historic preservation projects throughout the Tampa Bay area.

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