Tampa buys back Memorial Park Cemetery from property flipper: ‘I’m sorry it got to this’

There's a new statewide program on the way to help search, maintain and memorialize Black cemeteries after the Florida senate voted Thursday to approve the bill, which passed the House on April 19. 

The bill comes in response to investigative reporting from the Tampa Bay Times about erased Black cemeteries throughout the Bay Area.  

Simultaneously at the local level, the Tampa City Council agreed Thursday to buy back the segregation-era Memorial Park Cemetery after unwittingly losing it to a property flipper in a recent online auction. He won the cemetery with an $18,000 bid while city leaders were preoccupied. 

With Thursday's vote, the council voted to buy the 20-acre burial ground back for more than five times that amount at $100,000. Council member Bill Carlson said the purchase shows the city's commitment to the people who are buried there.

Graves at Memorial Park Cemetery.

Council member Guido Maniscalco offered an apology to the families saying, "I'm sorry it got to this, but I'm glad to see we have come to a resolution. At least beginning that, to protect and preserve such history."

READ: City of Tampa hires appraiser in negotiations with Memorial Park Cemetery owner

Since the city lost the cemetery in the auction, people with family buried there have expressed anger and fear over a property flipper owning the cemetery. Six-thousand headstones are documented at Memorial Park, including veterans dating back to World War One. 

A cross at Memorial Park Cemetery.

During public comment on Thursday before the purchase agreement, Tampa resident Michelle B. Patty spoke about those buried at the cemetery who've served the in the military, saying the area's veterans deserve better than the neglect that has occurred regarding Memorial Park. 

PREVIOUS: Tampa leaders work to acquire historic African American cemetery bought by developer during auction

"I know the city dropped the ball not knowing that a flipper would come in and take over the property," Patty told council members. "But it happened. It happened. Now we have an opportunity to straighten it out, so if you all will be so kindly, let's move forward."

Headstone at Memorial Park Cemetery. 

In 2020, archaeologists used radar at the site, finding most of the open spaces contain have unmarked graves. The next steps include determining who is buried there. The city has about 15,000 burial records it has to go through in order to make such determinations. 

Other future developments will include new fencing and a historical marker or monument detailing the significance of the site.