I have been captivated by some grave news in Tampa Bay – and yes, that pun is 100% intentional.
Since the late summer months there has been a flurry of news stories about long-abandoned and forgotten cemeteries discovered under schools, apartment communities and businesses in Tampa. Literally hundreds of coffins have been found using ground-penetrating radar technology and the possibility of even more forgotten burials is discussed almost every day.
A vast majority of those discovered graves belong to members of Tampa’s African American community. Some reports say the graves were simply forgotten to time. Others believe that landowners and interested buyers were more concerned about making a profit during Tampa’s boom of the mid-20th century than the sanctity of the souls buried beneath them. The land was sold for development and, yes, racism was undoubtedly part of the decision to pocket some money and literally pave atop the legacies of the dearly departed.
However those graves ended up under apartment buildings and schools, the new discoveries under Tampa’s topsoil ignited interest in the area’s history, even if that newly discovered past is less than celebratory.
As a huge fan of everything related to history, I’ve enjoyed reading about the discoveries and the many newspaper articles about some of the people who were laid to rest in these abandoned cemeteries. The Tampa Bay Times in particular has done a great job of researching and sharing the stories of some of those who were, at least up until 2019, lost to time and development.
Historians, archeologists and politicians are all talking about Tampa in a way we rarely get to hear. The people who came before us were instrumental in building everything we see – and admittedly take for granted – every single day. The discussions prove that history is much more than a bronze placard placed along a busy sidewalk. It’s real and the people that were here long before we were even born had a very real impact on our present.
Families in Tampa’s black community are rediscovering a part of their history, which is both upsetting and fascinating. All of this got me to thinking about my own history, especially as it relates to the LGBTQ community.
When I was younger, like most LGBTQ youth, I thought I was one of the only gay people to ever exist. It usually takes a few years after coming out to understand that there were generations of LGBTQ people who came before us and it takes even longer to appreciate all that they accomplished. It’s a history that is often hidden and inaccessible. Fortunately, that is starting to change in some states.
As a former journalist, I enjoy research – and if you look hard enough, we can learn a lot about our own past. We are fortunate to have people in our community who have kept records and photos and are always willing to share information about the people, places and events that have projected us to this moment in time. (I’m looking at you, Mark Bias and Carrie West!)
Whether it was the gay bars of the 1950s or the politicians who both opposed and supported us through the decades, it’s important to have that context in understanding where we are on this journey called life.
A very popular expression these days reminds us to “be on the right side of history” when voicing an opinion or supporting or opposing a cause.
It’s important to remember that history is not always “ancient,” either. Because of my long relationship with this publication, I’ve had an up-close view of several moments that will always be viewed as “historical.” Photos from the early days of St Pete Pride spring to mind, as do the passionate conversations held in Hillsborough County Commission chambers regarding domestic partnerships, adoptions and Gay Pride.
It’s also important to remember that even our more wide-ranging recent victories are historic, yet young. Marriage equality, which is less than five years old, is the biggest example.
Most of my adult life I’ve preached that the best way to gain equality is to share our personal stories. People have a more difficult time hating something when they have a personal connection to it. But the older I get, the more I realize that sharing our stories is also a way of ensuring we don’t get lost to time, much as those who are buried in those newly discovered cemeteries were.
We finally have legal documentation noting our relationships in courthouses thanks to marriage equality. News media finally covers LGBTQ issues and our impact on society’s future. And news programs, docuseries and documentaries are always a great way to get a glimpse of what came before us.
In 50 years, what will the history books and web pages – or their future equivalent – say about the LGBTQ experience? What voices and what landmark events will future generations of our community learn and study?
We just don’t know yet. But it’s important to keep our present as a tangible and teachable lesson for future generations who will be studying their past.
Otherwise we are at risk of our impact on history being buried and forgotten, just like the souls who rest in those newly discovered graves. And for me, that would be just as tragic.
Steve Blanchard is the former editor of Watermark and currently works in public relations. He lives in Tampa with his husband and their two dogs.