NAACP to Tampa: For Juneteenth, find Robert Meacham, a slave who became senator

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TAMPA — Robert Meacham was an enslaved man who became a Florida state senator pushing for educational opportunities for Black children.

“Robert Meacham is the type of man who deserves a street named for him,” said Fred Hearns, the curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “Maybe even a statue.”

But he doesn’t even have a marked grave.

Meacham is among the more than 1,200 buried in Tampa’s erased College Hill Cemetery for Blacks and Cubans, believed to be located in what is now the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot.

June 19 is Juneteenth, the day commemorating the anniversary of when in 1865 the enslaved in Texas were freed. It serves as the day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States.

Last year, the city of Tampa marked the occasion with celebratory social media messages.

This year, the local NAACP says the city should celebrate with actions, not words, by funding an archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery’s parking lot to learn if bodies are still there.

“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.”

Tampa spokesperson Janelle McGregor said no one from the NAACP or Italian Club has reached out to the city about College Hill Cemetery. “We are looking forward to being part of any future conversations,” she said.

In 1926, the city wrongfully taxed College Hill Cemetery, which was established in 1889. When the owners did not pay, the city took the cemetery from them.

The Italian Club purchased the property in 1950, eight years after the federal government last identified it as College Hill Cemetery. There is no record of the bodies being moved.

The Italian Club’s executive director Mark Stanish did not respond to two emails sent by the Times asking if his organization would fund ground-penetrating radar. The Times also left a message for Stanish on the Italian Club’s voicemail. He did not respond.

The Times has identified at least 55 possible enslaved people who were buried in College Hill Cemetery. Each was Black and born in the South prior to the end of the Civil War.

Historian Canter Brown Jr. documented Meacham’s rise from enslaved man to prominent state leader and published his findings in 1990 in the Florida Historical Quarterly.

The following history comes from his report.

Meacham was born in Gadsden County in 1835. His mother was an enslaved woman. His father was her white owner.

As a child, Meacham rode alongside his father in the family buggy and was educated. But, when he turned 18, Meacham was taken to Tallahassee to “fulfill the role of a house-servant for an affluent Leon County family.” When his father died, Meacham became that family’s “property.”

It is unclear how Meacham was freed. Descendants say he purchased his freedom with money “he had saved out of the gratuities given him by his master.” But there is no documented evidence of that.

Regardless, the Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s Civil War victory ensured his freedom.

Immediately after the war, Meacham helped found the African Methodist Church and establish Jefferson County’s first school for Black children.

After the passing of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 that enabled Black males to vote, Meacham delved into politics. He amassed such a large block of voters that he was appointed to the Florida Republican Party’s executive committee and to the state convention charged with framing a new constitution. He also served in the Florida Senate from 1868-1879.

He used his political power to push for educational opportunities for Black Floridians, primarily by helping to pass a public education bill in 1869 that established free public schools and serving as Jefferson County superintendent “of common schools.”

His daughter-in-law Christina Meacham would later earn her own renown in public education by serving as principal of Tampa’s first Black school, Harlem Academy.

Meacham’s life was threatened on several occasions.

In 1870, a white man pulled a pistol on Meacham as he rallied Black men to vote in Monticello, Fla. A physical confrontation ensued but no shots were fired and neither man was seriously harmed.

And in 1876, again in Monticello, Meacham engaged in a shootout with two white men who threatened him at home. Again, no one was harmed.

In 1896, Meacham and his wife Stella moved to Tampa, where he almost immediately made headlines. A Black woman asked for his help in finding a place to stay after she fought with her boyfriend. He brought her to a rooming house on Central Avenue in Tampa.

A police officer told the boyfriend that the woman had entered the room house with a white man. The boyfriend then walked into the rooming house and shot Meacham in the chest and groin.

Meacham survived, and went on to open a shoe shop in West Tampa.

He died on Feb. 27, 1902, at the age of 66. His obituary says he was buried in College Hill Cemetery.

“Where is he?” Lewis said. “Find Robert Meacham.”

Clearwater paid $222,334 for the archaeological survey of land where graves from two erased Black cemeteries were discovered this year, according to city spokesperson Joelle Castelli, despite not currently owning either properties.

“We are paying for the investigation because the city was a former owner of each of the properties at some point,” she said via email.

Still, if neither the city of Tampa nor the Italian Club pays for an archaeological survey, perhaps the state will.

On June 4, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill forming a task force to identify erased, lost and at-risk Black cemeteries throughout the state and then, by January 2022, to file a report that includes recommendations on what to do next.

Florida Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who sponsored the bill alongside state Sen. Janet Cruz, said those recommendations could include funding an archaeological survey of the Italian Club Cemetery’s land.

“For this bill to have been signed so close to Juneteenth is an opportunity to honor the enslaved who were buried there,” Driskell said. “We cannot allow our fear of recognizing our racist and segregated past get in the way of honoring them.”

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