The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He rose from slavery to state Senate. His grave and hundreds more may lie under a parking lot.

The Hillsborough County NAACP is calling for a search of grounds around a Tampa cemetery that could have lost graves. (Yvette Lewis)

Forced out of school for his mixed race despite his White father’s wish that he get an education, Robert Meacham helped other Black enslaved people to learn — “secretly and by night, using the dim glare of a candle for light,” one account says.

Eventually freed, Meacham worked to register Black voters and pass the 1868 state constitution that he promised was made “not for the white man, not for the black man, but for the people.” As a state senator in charge of the education committee, he helped establish Florida’s public school system.

He was “a man to be reckoned with,” historian Canter Brown Jr. wrote.

Yet Meacham may lie under a Tampa parking lot, just outside an Italian cemetery, among more than 1,000 unmarked and forgotten graves of Black people, according to documents reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. Now the NAACP in Hillsborough County is calling on the city to find the lost bodies.

“People don’t know where their loved ones are,” local NAACP President Yvette Lewis said in an interview Saturday. She sees the loss of what used to be called College Hill Cemetery as part of a long history of silencing Black Americans and erasing their contributions.

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A Tampa native, Lewis says she knew of only a couple of local cemeteries for African Americans before a local retiree came to her and the Times with theories that initially seemed “far-fetched.” The Times began investigating lost gravesites in 2019 and helped bring to light five Black or mostly Black burial grounds in the area. College Hill Cemetery, where Meacham may lie, became city property in the 1900s and eventually went to the local Italian Club, according to the Times; Lewis said authorities had a duty to preserve the known resting place and protect it from development.

“The city never has told our history,” she said. “The City of Tampa … needs to honor and own this and right this wrong.”

Tampa spokeswoman Janelle McGregor said officials want to look into the matter but need to do research. The city has already been working to honor those in “lost” burial grounds, McGregor said, and set up a nonprofit to fundraise for preserving another site, Zion Cemetery. The city has given $50,000, as has the county and state, she added.

The Italian Club, which also did not respond to inquiries Saturday, has not announced plans to search for graves since the Times’s November 2019 report raised questions about “a cemetery lost within another cemetery.”

Calls to search for graves have inspired statewide legislation amid a broader push to unearth the hidden history of marginalized residents and their communities. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this month signed a bill to create a task force to identify abandoned Black cemeteries, and state Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D) — a main sponsor — hopes the task force can become a model for the rest of the country.

She told The Washington Post that she sees a new willingness to examine the United States’ history of racism after the murder of George Floyd.

“We knew this is not an issue that is localized to Tampa Bay,” said Driskell, who lives in the area. “It really is an issue throughout Florida, and frankly I think throughout many places in the United States.”

Driskell credits the Tampa Bay Times’s Paul Guzzo with spurring new searches and confirmations of suspected burials — starting with Zion Cemetery, which Guzzo said was taken from Black owners in the early 1900s and given to a White family after the city levied improper taxes. When a construction crew found caskets there in 1951, Guzzo found, city authorities dismissed the discovery and kept building.

But Driskell said rumors of unmarked graves have a long history.

“This is something that in Black communities you’ll find that people will talk about,” she said. “Information gets passed down anecdotally throughout the generations.”

The task force can make recommendations for preserving these lost sites, Driskell said. She wants the state to help fund local efforts to identify who is buried in them. McGregor, the Tampa spokeswoman, said the city has been working with lawmakers to figure out how they could tap into state money.

The NAACP and city gave conflicting accounts of their conversations. McGregor said the NAACP has not directly communicated the desire for city funding regarding College Hill Cemetery: “We want to be part of conversation,” she said.

Lewis said she raised the issue at a meeting with the mayor’s chief of staff two weeks ago. The chief of staff said he would look into the issue, according to Lewis.

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The Italian Club funded a radar scan of its grassy parking lot in 2005, according to the Times, and did not discover evidence of hidden graves. But Jeff Moates, an archaeologist with the Florida Public Archaeology Network, told the Times and local news station WTSP that the ground-penetrating survey was flawed. He said it only checked part of the lot and did not use best practices.

“It’s not just a little thing that’s off,” Moates told WTSP.

Meacham was buried in College Hill Cemetery after dying at age 66 on Feb. 27, 1902, according to an obituary reviewed by the Times. It was the end of an illustrious career: Meacham came close to presiding over the Florida Senate, chaired powerful committees and helped found the African Methodist Church in Florida, according to Brown, the historian.

Meacham’s father, probably a White physician, enslaved his mother, a Black woman, historians say. Meacham said his father was “my master” and yet also told him that he was “free.” Meacham said that his father tried to pay to send him to a White school in Quincy, Fla., but that the arrangement lasted a few days.

“Some of the parents of the children sent word to the teacher that … they would keep their children at home” if he kept attending, Meacham once recalled, according to Brown.

Meacham eventually went to Tallahassee as a “house servant,” Brown wrote in a 1990 paper in the Florida Historical Quarterly. One account says he bought his and his mother’s freedom with savings. He lived to see slavery abolished, taking on political prominence in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War — despite threats.

On Election Day in 1870, a White man confronted Meacham with a gun as he stood with Black men waiting to vote, according to Brown.

“This is our poll,” the White man said. “It belongs to the White people.” The standoff ended without injuries.

Meacham died of unknown causes in Tampa, Brown wrote. The scholar’s account of Meacham’s life is extensive but ends with a mystery:

“His final resting place is unknown.”

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