How the City of Tampa Saved a 100-Year-Old Black Cemetery After Its Owner Died

A pedestrian is seen at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. The cemetery opened in 1919 and was recently cleaned up by the City of Tampa after the former owner had died and left the grounds in disrepair. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Memorial Park Cemetery looks better tended without an active owner than when it had one.

The century-old, segregation-era Black cemetery’s former owner, John Robinson, cared for the 20 acres on his own, a job he admitted was difficult. Overgrown tree branches dipped to the ground and covered sections of graves. Burial records were a mess.

He died in July 2019 and willed to family the cemetery that is the final resting place to more than 6,000, including historic figures. But the heirs didn’t want it and divested themselves of Memorial Park, located at 2225 E. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The city immediately took on the maintenance but refused long-term responsibility, filing lawsuits against Robinson’s estate to recoup expenses and stop the divestment.

Last fall, the city settled with the estate for a fraction of what they have spent and now accepts that caring for the cemetery is unofficially its responsibility for the foreseeable future, despite it having a new owner.

“This is an opportunity to serve the public,” said Ocea Wynn, Tampa’s neighborhood and community affairs administrator. “We’re concentrating on doing the right thing and the right thing is preserving the cemetery and paying homage and respect to those interred here.”

Still, stressed Wynn, “We do not own the cemetery.”

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website, in February 2020, Robinson’s niece Wendy Scolaro conveyed the cemetery deed to a Delaware-based real estate holding company — Carriage Holdings LLC.

The Tampa Bay Times left two messages at the listed phone number for Carriage Holdings without a response.

City attorney Gina Grimes said the company was “not interested” in maintaining the cemetery.

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SOURCE: Tampa Bay Times, Paul Guzzo