TAMPA’S LOST GRAVES

The Tampa Bay Times — formerly the St. Petersburg Times —  has lately been doing a great service for regional Florida history –and for humanity. It is joined in this effort by the Hillsborough County School District and, unfailingly, all of official Tampa Bay as it learns of the project.

I’ll repeat the lead paragraph of a story in the November 25th edition by Times staff writer Paul Guzzo:

The Hillsborough County School District on Wednesday announced that 145 graves had been found beneath largely vacant land on a corner of the King High School campus.

If I recall correctly, King High School is close to the shimmering, ever-expanding modern heart of  the city of Tampa. And these newly discovered graves are the final resting places, in most cases, of many of Tampa’s African-Americans community from the days of the segregated South.

This was not a front-page headlined story — only because it was basically a  further augmentation of  a developing story that  has already received much front page attention.

As  reporter Guzzo writes…

This is the second time in less than three months that a forgotten black cemetery has been found in the Tampa Bay area. In August, in reaction to a Times report, archaeologists went looking for and then found nearly 130 caskets from the segregation-era Zion Cemetery under a portion of the Robles Park Village housing project in Tampa.

Who originally found the graves to begin with? A non-African American activist and local history buff  has been drawing attention to these neglected burial grounds. But the Times story  says only that a tip to the school district about a place called Ridgewood Cemetery led to the search.

Meanwhile, records indicate, according to Guzzo’s story, that there were nearly 250 to 268 burials at Ridgewood.

We are not talking about 19th Century slave-era graves. It would be a trifle more understandable if grave so old were overlooked — though less understandable under any circumstances when talking about a burial site so large as this. Some of those buried in this forgotten ground died within the lifetime of us baby-boomers. How do you build a sprawling  20th Century high school campus or a housing project without knowing about a cemetery sharing the land? Were there no relatives to protest? Were there no headstones or grave markers of some kind? How could city planners be unaware of the graves of over 250 people, more than one of whom died as recently as 1952?

A good question. The investigation into this history continues.

In fact, The Tampa Bay Times did some research, sifting through their own archives and those of the now sadly defunct Tampa Tribune and found information on fourteen of the people said to  have been interred at Ridgewood.

Thanks to the Times, I can tell you about each, putting The Times information in italics, but adding a little speculation and some observations of my own, beginning with the death of the most poignantly mysterious, non-Tampa resident buried at Ridgewood: James Tuten BellA Jacksonville resident (who) died on the corner of Franklin Street on August 22, 1942. The cause of death was unknown. He was 65. 

Unknown death. Unknown burial. It’s like the fate of one who slips off a ship and into the sea after dark.

The Times had a little more information — just a little more — on William Coleman, a driver for the Jiffy Cab company. He died June 21, 1942 at 84. 

It happens that all but one of the fourteen graves the Times was able to research belonged to  men. The one woman, Josephine Sanders, blazed an incandescent trail across early 20th Century Tampa. Contemporary newspaper accounts tell us she was arrested in March 1931 for being about the most persistent violator of the prohibition law in the area. We’re  told Josephine ran a little joint just outside the city limits of Ocala (north of Tampa) and that the government has been trying to get her ever since 1925, but until this week she was scarcely nicked.

I guess it took death — on May 9, 1942 — to deliver the ultimate nick to Josephine. She was 56 at her passing.  From the sounds of it, she deserved, not grassed-over oblivion, but that celebrity Americans reserve for scofflaws and rebels. They should open a little joint in her honor for the young in-town crowd! Imagine “happy hour” at Josephine’s Place.

Inevitably, among the fourteen researched deaths,  the scant details on the record suggest all-too-familiar stories of lives terminated by accident, violence and the dysfunction born of poverty.

Twenty-five year old Eddie Gross, for instance, was a Seaboard Air Lines Railroad employee who accidentally drowned when he fell into the channel (off Seddon Island) while fishing on April 13, 1947. Seddon Island is now Tampa’s Harbor Island, an upscale enclave of condominiums and townhouses astride such sterling Tampa venues as the Convention Center and the Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was a future probably unimaginable to young Eddie as he disappeared below the dark waters of the channel. While working during the 90s for WTSP-TV (Tampa Bay’s 10), I was a bureau reporter at the station’s offices on Harbor Island. Even in that small time, the area has become ever more prosperous and upscale. I don’t think people fish out there anymore.

The mortal remains of 41-year-old Willie Jones lie in the lost old Ridgewood. The Times tells us only that he was shot to death by Ben Riley on May 23, 1948. Thirty-two-year-old Stanley Stokes was stabbed to death by his wife Alice on May 15, 1942.

Alex Maddox was billed a hero on July 26, 1946 when, while on duty as the night watchman for Tampa Linen Supply, he scared off two would-be burglars. He died on September 28, 1949.

I sense a deeper story buried in the bare-boned obituary of Lucious Mahoney,  accused of burning down the Lake Thononotosassa First Baptist Church where he was once a minister. The case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. Can’t you hear some coffee house busker singing “The Ballad of Lucious Mahoney” — about the Keltic surnamed African-American and fire-breathing evangelist, falsely accused of torching his own house of worship?

Lucious died on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day, as it happens), 1952 at the age of 59.  He lies anonymously at lost Ridgewood. Think of him when you hoist one next St. Paddy’s Day.

In the sad annals of the aged and perhaps also homeless, there can be no more painful case than that of Eli Dotson who on October 16, 1951 lost both feet under the wheels of a train after falling asleep on downtown Tampa railroad tracks. He died on November 9th, 1951, after days of what must have been great suffering — a wretched end to a long life begun during the Civil War, compounded by the tragedy of a forgotten burial.

I detect a whiff of the universal plague of drug or alcohol addiction in some of the sadder deaths. Charlie Thurston, age unknown at least in this account. also found himself on the railroad tracks at Sixth Avenue and 15th Street in Tampa on April 27, 1942. According to the paper, he was pushing his car across those tracks, apparently oblivious to the train Only in a chemically altered state, I submit, could one be so oblivious to a northbound Atlantic Coastline locomotive. But, of course, I have no proof of that and perhaps should refrain from redoubling the baffling ignominy of Charlie’s fate by suggesting it.

 James Robinson was only 20 when he was battered with a chunk of concrete during a dispute at Constant and Highland Avenues. He died a day later on May 15, 1948. The
Times tells us that second degree murder charges against one Clarence Duncan were dropped when an investigation determined he’d acted in self-defense.  There’s no mention of Robinson being armed. I find myself wondering if Duncan was white and Robinson black. But it may just have been one of those deadly disputes we hear about on the evening news  having nothing to do with ‘race, creed or place of national origin.’ But here again, I wonder if alcohol was a factor.  Or mental illness. And I wonder where Clarence Duncan is buried?

There’s no question what led to the demise of 66-year-old Joe Walker of 1109 Highland Ave, Tampa.  He was found floating in the Hillsborough River near the Cass Street Bridge on July 6, 1950. His landlady reported to police that he was last seen drunkenly wandering off  wearing only undershorts and a blue denim jacket. 

It’s less clear what led to the similar fate of 60-year-old Perry Williams a year before. He was missing about a week before police found him  floating in the Hillsborough River near Garcia Avenue on August 14, 1949.

These are all shadowy glimpses into the tragic depredations of 20th Century life at the fringes of urban Tampa.

But, to put a capstone on all this —  on November 19, 1928, a waggish member of Tampa’s Twenties-era  pencil press was moved to exotic lengths in describing Ben Sadler, a man with a wealth of bushy gray hair and a gray beard who would have looked more at home in a Turkish minaret at sundown than in a police court.

Ben had been charged with being drunk.

However much Ben did or didn’t drink subsequent to that court date — after The Crash and throughout The Depression — he managed to survive until September 12, 1943. He was 80 at the time of his death and joined – along with the two Jameses, William, Eli, Eddie, Alex, Lucious, Josephine, Stanley, Charlie, Joe and Perry  — the lost, newly remembered but mostly still anonymous souls known to be interred in one of Tampa’s shamefully lost and forgotten cemeteries.

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Footnote: If you’re “just joining me”, as they say, yes, I have moved — for now — from the home turf of New England and re-located to my old professional Tampa Bay stomping ground where I hope to save money and re-connect with old friends and colleagues. Let’s all not fail to stay in touch.

 

 

 

 

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