More than 60 slaves could be buried in unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery

A Tampa historian hopes to memorialize dozens of unnamed slaves buried in Oaklawn Cemetery, the final resting place for many of the city's founders.

Prominent Tampa citizens like Vicente Ybor and William Ashley are buried in Tampa's oldest burial ground, established in 1850.

Historian Fred Hearns believes as many as 60 slaves were also buried in the cemetery, in a grassy field known as Section 4. There are no gravestones and only a few markers with names.

"It's important because most of the city's fathers and mothers are buried here at Oaklawn Cemetery and the thing I always say to people is, 'black history is American history,'" said Hearns. "This is all part of one continuous story of how the town of Tampa, the village of Tampa became in 1887 the city of Tampa. And all these people played a part in that doing the manual labor, working in the homes of the more prominent Tampans who lived in downtown Tampa."

Hearns would like the city to place a more prominent marker in Section 4. He hopes city leaders will establish an annual ceremony to memorialize the slaves who are buried there.

"Our story is directly tied to Oaklawn Cemetery more than any other one location I can think of," he said. "Those people who gave their blood, sweat and tears before freedom came, they're also buried here. There needs to be some acknowledgment."

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Hearns' long-term goal is to identify every slave buried in Oaklawn Cemetery and honor them with a headstone. Hearns' ideas are gaining the support of Councilman Orlando Gudes.

"We have a lot of hidden jewels in this city that we don't know about and then when someone like a Fred Hearns comes along and uncovers things, it intrigues everyone's mind," Gudes said. "I'd support anything that's feasible. If it can be funded privately or the city has some kind of special coffer we can go into, if it's something that's going to bring knowledge, something that's going to alert the community of history, I'm all for that."

In 2017, a USF team used magnetic and radar detectors to determine there are as many as 60 unmarked graves. The attempt to uncover the hidden history could help the effort to have Oaklawn Cemetery considered a historic landmark.