For descendants of those buried at erased Black cemeteries, work never stops to honor ancestry

Several erased African American cemeteries were uncovered in Tampa Bay in the last few years, and the work to do right by those buried hasn’t stopped. 

The state of Florida created a taskforce to study abandoned African American cemeteries and develop ways to identify them, record the history and respect the burial ground. A taskforce report finished in December 2021 gave some recommendations. 

For the descendants of the deceased, it’s personal. Corey Givens Jr. is a fourth generation St. Pete native and community activist who ran for local office, and he said his great-great-grandfather Will Williams was buried in the former Oaklawn Cemetery, which was located underneath Lot 1 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Oaklawn was an erased, segregated burial site condemned in 1926.

"This is sacred ground because this is the last known resting place of my ancestor," said Givens. "He was a farmer and a mason, and one of the things he did was he helped built the seawall for the city of St. Pete. He also helped pave some of the early streets."

Before Oaklawn itself was paved over, the Black and white people buried there were supposed to be moved to other cemeteries based on their race.

"The only problem was that when they started moving the graves, occurring to folks who were undertakers at that time, you didn’t have coffins. You didn’t have headstones," said Givens.

In 2021, ground penetrating radar found three possible graves under lot 1, according to the city of St. Pete.

"Our family’s one of those families that just never knew what ever happened to our loved one. So we assume that his body still rests underneath this paved parking lot, but again, we don’t know," said Givens. 

Understanding what happened and why takes detailed work, and that’s the challenge for researchers working on the African American Burial Grounds and Remembering Project at the University of South Florida.

"We are trying to gather information about the cemeteries themselves. Who was buried? What happened to the remains? Were they exhumed? Were they left behind? Were they relocated?" said Julie Armstrong, a co-principal investigator on the USF project.

Armstrong said she’s part of a team painting a mental picture of those legacies, collecting oral histories and holding community conversations and educational exhibits. USF anthropology professor Antoinette Jackson is the principal investigator on the project, and she said they feel called to gather as much of that rich history as they can.

"Most of the time the history has been written with these stories, this particular community, erased or ignored or not included in the discussion. So it’s important to create a fuller story, a broader story about our Tampa Bay community in this particular history," said Jackson.

Jackson also started the Black Cemetery Network to connect people working on projects to uncover erased cemeteries across the country.

The work reaches beyond Oaklawn Cemetery in St. Pete. Right across the street under I-175 are the predominately African American Evergreen Cemetery and Moffett Cemetery with Black and white Civil War veterans. In Gulfport, there’s the abandoned African American Lincoln Cemetery with unmarked graves, and a banner with hundreds of names surrounds Zion Cemetery in Tampa under the Robles Park development. Burial sites were also discovered include the St. Matthew Baptist Church Cemetery under the CRUM parking lot in Clearwater, and Ridgewood Cemetery on King High School’s property in Tampa.

"What we can do from our perspective is that we can contact people who lived in this community when the cemeteries were here. We can contact people who have ancestors who were possibly buried on this site," said Armstrong.

Every place weaves into the fabric that makes up Tampa Bay.

"First, we were hearing about it through the material record, the archeology. That’s all very, very important, and it raised attention. But then, it’s the living people in communities, I didn’t hear their voice. I didn’t hear what it was feeling like, what they had to add to the story," said Jackson.

Givens’ voice is now a part of that. He said his ancestor was disrespected in life because of his race, and now being disrespected again in death. So he wants his ancestor Will Williams’s legacy to live on.

"I think what’s happening now is those people who were around, they’re no longer here to tell those stories. And those who are here, they’re in their last few years. It’s important that we document those stories and that we tell those stories so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Because if it does, we’re doomed to fail," said Givens.

USF researchers with the African American Burial Grounds and Remembering Project want to hear from people who have ancestors buried at erased Tampa Bay cemeteries, neighbors who remember living by them, or anyone connected with the sites. You can contact them through the Black Cemetery Network at for more information.


Zion Cemetery at Robles Park, Tampa

Ridgewood Cemetery at King High School, Tampa

MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa

All People’s Cemetery, Hillsborough County

Lincoln Cemetery, St. Petersburg

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg

Frank Crum building, Clearwater

Greenwood Cemetery at Curtis Fundamental and Palmetto Elementary School, Clearwater