St. Pete’s ‘Art Over Erasure’ Hopes to Recognize Lost Burial Sites and Recover Black History | Events and Movies | Tampa

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Photo by David Shedden c/o University of South Florida

The location of the cemeteries of the Gas Plant district in St. Petersburg.

For decades, the bodies of African Americans have been paved for highways, housing, schools and businesses. Their communities were informed that the remains had been moved. But the truth about what really happened has also been exposed until recently. Just a few weeks ago, Tampa reporter Paul Guzzo reported that archaeologists found at least 328 black graves under FrankCrum’s human resources headquarters in Clearwater. The site once housed a segregation-era black cemetery belonging to St. Matthews Baptist Church. But the property was sold in 1955 to businessmen promising to relocate those buried there before construction. The move never took place. Just one story among many, not just locally, but across the country. Enter the African American Cemetery and Remembrance Projectled by Dr. Antoinette Jackson, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida (USF).

“I thought, why are people only now discovering black cemeteries under parking lots, churches and housing complexes?” said Jackson. “How do we bring this back to the present and understand what it means to find these cemeteries? How can we contribute to the conversation and engage people? »

After George Floyd was murdered by police in 2020, USF set aside $500,000 in grants for projects on understanding blackness and anti-black racism. Jackson’s proposal was funded and work began.

“It’s a model of neglected and forgotten African-American cemeteries,” said Dr. Julie Armstrong, an English professor at USF St. Petersburg.

She was part of the team working with Jackson on search starting with Oaklawn Cemetery in St. Petersburg, now a parking lot along Interstate 275. Additionally, Zion Cemetery in Tampa is now the Robles Park Village housing complex. This research grew into a national database called Black Cemetery Network with records of cemeteries in 20 states so far. But the work goes beyond a vast historical archive and looks to art as a means of acknowledging the incredible injustices at hand.

“Once I started the conversation and started working locally, it became a conversation with people all over the country,” Jackson said. “It’s not an isolated incident, it’s not isolated to Florida.”

But the work goes beyond a vast historical archive and looks to art as a means of acknowledging the incredible injustices at hand. Walter “Wally B” Jennings works daytime as USF’s assistant director of diversity initiatives. But many in the community know the Tampa native for his spoken word poetry. When he heard what Jackson was working on, he wanted to get involved too.

The resulting collaboration is “Art Over Erasure: Speaking the Truth About Troubled Stories in St. Petersburg,” on Thursday, November 3, at the Center for Health Equity. The event hopes to address the erasure of St. Petersburg’s Oaklawn, Evergreen and Moffett cemeteries through the lens of research and art.

“When you are able to transpose data into a story, reimagining it as a poem dedicated to someone who may have been buried in one of these places, it humanizes it and provides a moment of equalization for people,” Jennings said.

The event is part of a series including previous sessions in Tampa. Another is in preparation for April in Clearwater. Because much of the documentation has been lost over the years, oral history is crucial. Speaking of the places that have been erased, the hope is that more stories will come to light. Jackson and Armstrong said they interviewed St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch, a native of the town, and found that even Welch didn’t know about the cemeteries until he read about them in the newspaper.

“We want to start the process of remembering appropriately and commemorating appropriately,” Armstrong said. “We also hope that there will be people who have memories, whatever they are, or knowledge, whatever they are. We try to collect as many oral histories as possible to help complete the process of research, so it is both commemorative and research at the same time.

Christopher S. Washington