Black Cemeteries Matter: Erasure of historic Black Cemeteries in Polk County, Florida
Juliana Waters, CRM archaeologist and master’s student in the Department of Applied Anthropology at the University of South Florida
In the past several years, the Tampa Bay area has experienced a reckoning with regard to the intentional erasure, destruction, and abandonment of historic African American cemeteries such as Zion Cemetery in Tampa or St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery in Clearwater. Scholars, journalists, community members, archaeologists, and others have contributed to a growing movement that aims to identify and document these sacred sites in an effort to prevent further destruction.
In this vein, this project aimed to identify and record cemeteries in Polk County, examine the processes leading to the erasure of historic Black cemeteries, the history surrounding erasure on a county scale, and to provide a framework for researching and documenting historic Black cemeteries in the Jim Crow South. Prior to this project, only four historic Black cemeteries were documented in the Florida Master Site File for Polk County, which records cultural resources and sites throughout Florida. The resulting efforts of this project produced documentation for an additional 60 historic cemeteries, 13 of which are historic African American cemeteries. Identification was completed through extensive archival research, property records, pedestrian survey, and community outreach.
Of the 13 newly documented burial grounds, three were determined to be unmarked and five were determined to have been erased or destroyed between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries resulting in their erasure from the modern landscape. Juliana's research suggests that the destruction of these sites is connected to industrial development throughout the county and these instances of erasure are representative of larger structural inequalities present throughout the Jim Crow South.
Juliana Waters (she/her) is a CRM archaeologist and master’s student in the Department of Applied Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on documenting Historic Black cemeteries in Polk County and exploring the socioeconomic and political factors that have contributed to their erasure from the modern landscape.
This program is sponsored by the Central Gulf Coast Archaeological Society, and the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education.