What Lies Beneath: The search for unmarked burial grounds in Hillsborough County

The Waterman Exhibit Gallery, Institute for Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science, Social Science Building (SOC), USF 15 Sep 2023- 30 Jan 2024

https://www.usf.edu/arts-sciences/institutes/ifaas/programs/what-lies-beneath-exhibit.aspx

The idea of a cemetery often brings with it a belief in permanence. The emotional, physical and community efforts to commemorate ancestors can collide with the sobering reality of what happens when these sites of memory are lost, forgotten or erased by larger forces set in play by Jim Crow.  These erasures wipe away the human traces of a former world built with a difficult history that extends to the Post-Emancipation period.

Myrtle Hill Cemetery & Spanish Park East Cemetery in maps. What lies beneath, USF, Dec 2023

Overbuilt & Conveniently Forgotten

During the time I have lived here, several rediscovered burial grounds beneath high schools and housing complexes appeared in the pages of the Tampa Bay Times, awakening the grief of many over the unmarked graves. In 2019 the bodies of ancestors buried in the Zion Cemetery and Ridgewood Cemetery emerged as recent examples of a history of segregation literally buried in the rush to develop areas of Tampa. Ground penetrating radar found 145 of the original 270 burials from the former Ridgewood cemetery that year, nearly all of them Black.[1] Redlining was the motor for such outcomes.

Museum Studies: Race, Memorialization & the Museum

Over forty cemeteries and burial grounds were identified in the study  undertaken by Dr. Kimmerle and her Ph.D. candidate Kelsee Hentschel-Fey, along with GIS Manager Benjamin Mittler, and Dr. Lori Collins of the USF Center for Digital Heritage and Geospatial Information. Students in Dr. Kimmerle’s museum studies class  “Race, Memorialization and the Museum”  produced the exhibition. 

“The exhibit offers a unique view into the history of the area told through the lens of its cemeteries, utilizing historic and modern photographs, archival documents and maps depicting the approximate locations of newly re-discovered burial grounds, and mixed media sculptures to help convey the story of the buried past. “

Memory Jug, Caitlin Figueroa.
Memory Jug, Caitlin Figueroa. Mixed media.

Images of the Exhibit: December 2023

This fascinating show was created by several scholars who came together in a multi-year interdisciplinary investigation into unmarked burial grounds in Hillsborough County, Florida.  As one walks through the exhibit, the layers of information ultimately defy anonymity, and offers proof of a history told by those who lie beneath the city. To end on the Dozier School for Boys was a powerful note. Here are some of my fotos of the show, that lend an idea of the content. 

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Why this Show Matters

Given the history of this state and the current efforts to obscure Black and Indigenous histories, this exhibit matters.

There remains a profound need for a followup exhibition covering the continued efforts on memorialization by various local and descendant communities as additional sites come to light.  

[1] Paul Guzzo, “NAACP wants reparations for Tampa’s Black cemeteries that government “stole”. Tampa Bay times 27 Feb 2023

https://www.tampabay.com/life-culture/history/2023/02/27/tampa-black-cemetery-ridgewood-naacp/

Resources

See collection of articles on the Tampa Bay Times website:

In search of lost cemeteries A number of cemeteries forgotten through the years across the Tampa Bay area came to light during 2019, most of them final resting places for African-Americans. The new attention to old burial grounds springs from a Tampa Bay Times report in June that revealed the first and largest of them – Zion Cemetery in Tampa.

https://www.tampabay.com/topics/zion/

Black Cemetery Network: Zion Cemetery https://blackcemeterynetwork.org/bcnsites/zion

African American Cemetery Alliance of Tampa Bay https://african-american-cemetery-alliance-of.business.site

Florida Public Archaeology Network http://www.fpan.us

FPAN – Training courses on cemetery care https://www.fpan.us/training-courses/crpt/

AAHGS-Tampa

Dozier School for Boys / Florida School for Boys https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_School_for_Boys

“A Forgotten History of How the US Government Segregated America.” NPR, 3 May 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america

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