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Land-use change denied for property that could have been African American burial site

Posted at 5:31 PM, Feb 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-25 17:41:34-05

TAMPA HEIGHTS, Fla — It was two sides, and two reactions to the outcome of a land-use decision in Tampa Heights Thursday. While it was a success for some, it was a disappointment for others.

“I think in lieu of the current situation and history, it was most definitely the right decision to make,” said Aileen Henderson, who was against the land-use change.

“If we can’t take care of our cemetery and don’t have the funds for that, taking care of both pieces will be even more difficult.,” said Teresa Caddick, the President of Showmen’s rest.

She represents that private property adjacent to the historic Woodlawn Cemetery and explained to Tampa City Council the land was purchased by the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association in the 70s for either future burials or as a way to supplement the funds to take care of their other property to the north of that, Showmen’s Rest.

“Burials at Showmen’s rest are few and far between these days, the cemetery is not realizing income from burials and is now in need of funds to maintain the surrounding grounds, wall, and mausoleum,” said Donna Popovich, who spoke during public comment.

It’s why Caddick says they wanted to change the land use and previous plans were to sell to Skyline41, a developer that wanted to build townhomes there. That deal fell through right as neighbors began to question whether bodies are buried there.

There’s too big of a question that looms over that parcel to assume that there are no burials there,” Henderson said. “While we certainly respect that Showmen‘s never had any burials there, we can’t be for sure that from 1888 until 1971 there were not burials there”

A week ago, the owners say archaeologists began to comb through public archives to better understand the history of Woodlawn cemetery and how it’s grown. They say based on that so far, their private plot of land was never used as a cemetery. They also had two geo surveys done that didn’t show any signs of caskets but said hand digging would need to be done to be absolutely sure.

After 3 hours of public comment and discussion of facts, the Tampa City Council decided not to change the use of this land.

“I can’t support it at all because since this cemetery was purchased, it was purchased as a cemetery,” said Councilman Orlando Gudes. “For 51 years it has not been paying taxes, because it’s been filed as a cemetery.”

“Either the prospect of there being bodies there, which I know there’s a conflict, etc., We’ve all heard a great deal on that, but at the very least, we are dealing with a property that surrounding there are cemeteries and whatnot, which I think should give this council a significant level pause,” said Councilman Luis Viera.

But council members said more needs to be done to help raise money and show support to the owners of Showmen’s Rest in respect to taking care of their cemetery and noted their long history in the Bay Area.

Henderson, who was instrumental in the movement to stop the land-use change agrees.

Cemeteries are very near and dear to a lot of people and these folks need help,” said Henderson. “I get it, they need help. So, we need to come together as a community and support that as well.”