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Robert Meacham, who became a Florida state senator after being freed from slavery, is one of more than 1,200 people buried at a site that is now believed to be a parking lot for the Italian Club Cemetery in Tampa, Fla.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Meacham’s unmarked grave was located in the College Hill Cemetery for Blacks and Cubans–which has long been erased.
In an effort to rectify this, the local NAACP branch in Tampa has challenged the city to commemorate Juneteenth by funding an archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery lot to find out if Meacham’s body and others are there.
From the Times:
“I don’t want a symbolic gesture,” said Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough County NAACP president. “If this city cares about those men and women who were enslaved, show me. Do the right thing. Find their bodies so their souls can rest. Robert Meacham is a hero. Give him the dignity he deserves.”
Historian Canter Brown Jr. chronicled Meacham’s legendary life for The Florida Historical Quarterly back in 1990, which can be read in its entirety here.
Brown wrote that Meacham “was a man to be reckoned with,” who played a strong role in various legislative committees after he became a free man. He said Meacham could “rightly claim to be one of the founders of Florida’s public education system; and through it all, he was known as a decent man who believed in spending much of his energies in building schools and churches.”
Meacham died of unknown causes in Tampa in 1902 and was buried in College Hill Cemetery, according to the Times.
Here’s where things get murky: The Times reports that Tampa wrongfully taxed College Hill Cemetery in 1926, and ultimately took possession of the land after the owners refused to pay. The Italian Club–which was founded as a place for Tampa’s Italian community to socialize and “overcome many of the social and economic challenges that confronted those “turn-of-the-century” immigrants from Italy”–bought the land that once was home to College Hill in 1950.
The newspaper says that there is no record of bodies being moved from the site.
So, what happens now? City of Tampa officials told the Times that at this point, no one from the NAACP or The Italian Club has reached out to the city about the missing graves, but they are “looking forward to being part of any future conversations. The Times reached out to the Italian Club executive director, Mark Stanish, to ask if the organization would fund the archeological survey.
They did not hear back from him.
Questions surrounding the missing College Hill graves could be answered by a state-funded task force that will work to find and preserve abandoned Black cemeteries throughout Florida. Spectrum News 9 reports that this is the result of a bill sponsored by Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell that Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed to law–proving that a broken clock is right twice a day.
Here’s to hoping that the task force can accomplish its mission, and that Meacham and all of the others buried at College Hill can be honored with a true resting place that’s undisturbed by various footsteps and parked vehicles.