TAMPA, Fla. — A Tampa cemetery is at the center of a question of who is responsible for it after the property owner passed away, to make sure some work is not forgotten.
Memorial Park Cemetery takes up nearly 19 acres, situated on E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It’s a historically African American cemetery, including a memorial to veterans from World War I.
“I’ve attended a few burials in that cemetery as a kid,” said Ronald Sheehy.
Sheehy said his grandparents, uncle and other relatives are buried there. Now, he’s learning about the status of the cemetery and says his concern isn’t just for his family, but all those buried there.
“Anytime a family goes to the extent of memorializing a loved one to bury them to develop a headstone and so forth that should be honored,” Sheehy said.
According to court documents, the property’s recent owner, John Robert Robinson, passed away in July. The cemetery’s Florida operational license was surrendered in 2018.
The city said it’s spent around $15,000 on the property since Robinson's death.
In November, the city filed a lawsuit against Robinson’s estate, seeking money for the costs it says it incurred while providing maintenance.
It states the cemetery, “…was abandoned as evidenced by a lack of maintenance, significant grass overgrowth and accumulation in the weeks and months that followed, along with uncompleted repairs needed on the property.”
According to court documents, the estate denied that and argues notice was not given to the estate of the city’s action to provide services.
The city also believes a maintenance trust fund is available and filed a notice of claim, but an objection was filed in response.
In a petition to abandon the property filed in Pasco County, the estate said Robinson maintained control of interments, cemetery records and the maintenance of the grounds, and did so voluntarily.
The estate argued the property can’t be sold until there is a determination of who owns what burial plots and which are available for sale, but that in order for that to happen hand written records dating back to the early 1900’s would need digitized. It estimates that costs around $20,000.
The owners say no surviving family members are financially able to continue with the upkeep and financial demands for the cemetery.
The city objected to the petition, stating in court records “…the Estate should not be allowed to walk away from its responsibilities and expect someone else to preserve the dignity of the departed.”
“I think the city has a responsibility and I’m pleased to see that the city lived up to their responsibility so far in keeping the cemetery maintained. But I understand the controversy surrounding continued involvement of the city. But here again I think the city has a responsibility,” said Sheehy.
Sheehy said his father’s cousin is also buried at Zion Cemetery. Experts believe the city’s first African-American cemetery has hundreds of people buried there, but buildings were eventually constructed over the property.
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“I fear that governments and organizations, institutions want to view this as something that happened in the past. But the truth is it’s the result of collective complacency. It takes both active erasure of a place and active ignorance on the part of everyone. We need to think of places like Memorial that are disappearing as fast as these other places,” said Eric Prendergast, a senior archaeologist and principal investigator for Cardno.
The firm has conducted work related to the discovery of graves at Zion Cemetery. Prendergast said cemeteries are still becoming lost and abandoned, and that the concern over Memorial Park Cemetery is just one example.
"The city needs to maintain it and make sure the records are located and kept in a secure place," said Yvette Lewis, the president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch.
Lewis said losing records is what happened with other cemeteries. She said they are watching Memorial Park carefully.
“This whole controversy about cemeteries the absurdity of black cemeteries which dates back to the Jim Crow era,” Sheehy said. “It just sort of should remind everyone of just how unfair it is and this leads to you know I was thinking that there’s no expiration date on cemeteries there shouldn’t be.”
Sheehy said he thinks his relatives and others are just becoming aware of the problems in the cemetery, but believes there will be widespread interest.