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This teacher is adding Black cemeteries to history lessons

Posted November 14, 2020 3:00 a.m. EST

— Greeks are credited with the emergence of the Tarpon Springs sponge docks, but Black residents were among the industry’s earliest leaders.

As Union soldiers fought to end slavery, there were slaves fighting against them.

Neither of those facts are “household knowledge,” said Shannon Peck-Bartle, a social studies teacher at Tampa’s Steinbrenner High School.

She is looking to change that.

Last school year, Peck-Bartle added the history of Tarpon Springs’ Rose Cemetery to her curriculum. It was approved for all Hillsborough County schools.

Buried in the Black cemetery are pioneers of the sponge docks and a Confederate soldier.

“Those are history lessons,” Peck-Bartle said.

Now, she is looking to add to her curriculum.

Peck-Bartle is among those tasked by the school district to create a curriculum for Ridgewood Cemetery, the forgotten and unmarked mid-20th century burial ground for the indigent and unknown found last year on Tampa’s King High School campus.

But why not include all local Black cemeteries, she asked, from the endangered and forgotten to the lost, erased and recently found?

“We can share the voices of those buried in the cemeteries to teach the community about their lives,” Peck-Bartle said.

A granite head stone marks the burial site of Wilburt Brooks, an African-American sponge diver, whose remains are interred at Rose Cemetery, 124 N Jasmine Ave, in Tarpon Springs. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ' Times )

Ridgewood, which has a few white burials but is mostly Black, can be used to educate students on what led to someone being buried in a cemetery set aside for the poor.

The early-20th century Zion Cemetery — discovered last year under public housing units, warehouses and a tow lot on the 3700 block of Tampa’s N. Florida Ave. — can be used to teach about segregation, Jim Crow and why the Black community lacked the power to stop a white developer from erecting buildings over the graves beginning in the 1920s.

The abandoned Memorial Cemetery, which the City of Tampa is trying to save, has graves belonging to pioneering Black residents.

“We had two found in Clearwater,” Peck-Bartle said, referencing early-20th century graves discovered last year from St. Matthews Baptist Church Negro Cemetery on the FrankCrum campus and more from an unnamed cemetery discovered on unused land owned by the Pinellas County School District.

Each of those, she said, can be used to educate students on the pioneering Black communities that used the cemeteries when Clearwater was part of Hillsborough County.

What’s more, she said, archaeologists are still looking for erased Black cemeteries on MacDill Air Force Base and at Odessa horse ranch, both dating to the early-20th century.

“The goal is to network all of these cemeteries,” Peck-Bartle said, “to pull together resources into a comprehensive education program that can engage students.”

Her Rose Hill curriculum includes tours of the property, preservation efforts such as cleaning and repairing headstones, and talking with those who manage it via the nonprofit Rose Cemetery Association.

“It is a great idea,” Anne Dabbs, 84 and the nonprofit president, said. The graves of her parents and husband are there, and she plans to be buried there someday, too. “Let the people know our history because so much of our Black history has been depressed, ignored and forgotten. This is a start.”

According to the application that had the cemetery placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, the Tarpon Springs property at 124 N. Jasmine Ave. was initially owned by Hamilton Disston, a wealthy manufacturer from Philadelphia.

Originally called Rose Hill Cemetery, the earliest legible marked burial is from 1904, but the cemetery is believed to date to the late-1800s.

In 1917, it was deeded to the Rose Hill Association made up of the area’s Black residents, said Dabbs, who took minutes for the organization at the age of 15. The cemetery and nonprofit dropped the Hill from their name in 1979 to distinguish themselves from Rose Hill Memorial Park in Tampa.

Rose Cemetery had difficult years, said Alfred Quarterman, 91 and former president of the association. He has a family plot there.

“I started helping to take care of it in around 1991,” he said. “It was a disaster. We had trash piling up and weeds more than two feet high covering graves. It took a lot of volunteers and dedication to clean it.”

There have been offers to purchase the cemetery over the years from the city and the private sector, Quarterman said. He believes keeping it community-owned is why it lasted while other Black cemeteries were abandoned, lost, destroyed or erased.

Perhaps, Peck-Bartle said, that is also a lesson.

“They have a team that looks out for it,” she said. “It means a lot to them. They won’t let it go away. But I worry what happens to it when people like Mr. Quarterman and Mrs. Dabbs are gone. That’s why we need to bring more attention to it. Someone needs to take over.”

The 4.6-acre cemetery’s burials total around 1,000.

Each, Quarterman said, tells a story.

“Walk through and learn about our history and our ancestors,” he said. “We have military men buried here from the Civil War to the current wars.

The Civil War grave belongs to Richard Quarls, who fought alongside the man who enslaved him in South Carolina. Quarls would later move to Tarpon Springs and call himself Christopher Columbus because it was the only other name he knew.

Among Quarterman’s favorites is the granite marker for Wilburt Brooks. Its inscription identifies him as a founding father of Tarpon Springs and a pioneer of the sponge industry. Black spongers arrived in Tarpon Springs in the late-1800s and early 1900s, according to Quarterman, most from the Bahamas or Key West. It is unclear where Brooks was born in 1898.

“They had boats with hooks on the end they used to get the sponges,” he said. “Then a lot of Greeks started coming and they had diving suits that made getting the sponges easier.”

The Blacks were pushed to the background of the industry, Quarterman said, and then “forgotten.”

“People are always surprised at what they find here,” Qubit Jackson, the cemetery sexton, said. “What is here? History.”

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