Tampa Mayor Jane Castor publicly acknowledged and apologized Friday for past administrations’ role in erasing Black cemeteries from the city’s history.
The last two years have seen a deluge of reports on rediscovered Black cemeteries across the state that led to the creation of the Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries and newly filed legislation to address the issue. Lost and forgotten cemeteries became a focus after Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo helped uncover the purposely forgotten Zion Cemetery under an East Tampa housing complex.
“We can’t right past wrongs,” Castor said. “But certainly, we can acknowledge those and apologize for the wrongs of our community in the past.”
Castor issued the apology from Memorial Park Cemetery. Memorial Park was founded over 100 years ago to serve as the final resting place of Black veterans who fought in World War I. City Council Member Luis Viera said no matter who was at fault, it is incumbent on the current community to make things right.
He said the veterans buried in Memorial Park represent some of the best America had to offer at the time.
“During the height of Jim Crow, the height of racial terror here in the south, these great Americans served a country that wouldn’t stand for them,” Viera said. “They exhibited what I like to call ‘aspirational patriotism.’ The idea that they believed in this country’s best values that would be applied to them and they gave love to a country that didn’t always return it.”
While state Task Force members Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell, two Tampa Democrats, have each filed legislation addressing Black cemeteries, Castor said Tampa had done its own work. She even started a city-level task force led by Neighborhood and Community Affairs Administrator Ocea Wynn.
She said the city has worked to protect and honor rediscovered cemeteries, including helping save Memorial Park from abandonment.
“The city of Tampa has invested considerable time, manpower and money to protect and improve Memorial Park since the death of the property owner two years ago,” she said.
Wynn said the city had worked closely with the Zion Preservation and Memorial Society, NAACP and other community groups to help fund memorials and educate the public.
Planning Director Stephen Benson said one of the city’s most significant moves was when the City Council redesignated the land use category of cemeteries to Park Lands and Open Spaces.
“You hear more about rezonings, but the land use is the umbrella above the zoning. So, it’s actually more important. It’s a higher standard,” Benson said. “What we’re proposing is to, regardless of the zoning, add protections on top of the land so that in the future, the development rights or the ability develop doesn’t come into question again.”
Benson said the Planning Department and Task Force would also revise the city’s comprehensive plan to address cemeteries, which it currently does not. He said Castor tasked them with bridging the gap in policy by focusing on three things:
“Focus on proposing changes to address the lack of land use designation,” Benson said. “We’re also going to be proposing to add a list and designations of all the cemeteries we currently know about. Not just the city-owned cemeteries as well. And then the last thing is to propose policies that will address what to do about those situations in the future moving forward.”
Castor said though the city cannot right the wrongs of the past, it can promise not to repeat them.