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Cemetery Project Teaches Students About Lost African American History

Yellow rose on black metal frame.
Greg Ortega
/
Unsplash
Students in the greater Tampa Bay region are learning more about the history of their communities through an educational project involving African American cemeteries.

Students in the greater Tampa Bay region are learning more about the history of their communities through an educational project involving African American cemeteries.

For almost two years, the subject of “forgotten cemeteries” -- predominantly African American burial grounds that have been lost to time and neglect -- has been an issue in the Tampa area and across the state.

Now, a local program is trying to teach students how that can happen.

The Rose Hill Cemetery Project got its start looking at the largest and one of the oldest segregated African American cemeteries in Pinellas County.

The project offers free lesson plans and in person and virtual field experiences -- “place-based learning” -- for local school districts and students to try to preserve, record, and learn about the African American experience in the Tampa Bay area.

Students work with organizations in their community on projects that are trying to preserve archival data about the history of these cemeteries and those buried there. Students also help build the project’s website.

“It’s really about inclusiveness and trying to think about other ways of knowing that normally aren't found within a traditional education curriculum that's available,” said Shannon Peck-Bartle, director of the program. “Most of the education is focused in history and social studies on unwritten documents.”

Students work with oral histories, photographs, artifacts, monuments, and memorials.

The project’s new “Unknown: Memorializing African American Cemeteries” program is funded by the Florida Council of Social Studies and gives students a chance to learn about these burial sites and their history through the creation of art.

“In the last two years, we have eight African American cemeteries (in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties) that have been rediscovered,” said Peck-Bartle, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida who has taught secondary social studies with the Hillsborough County School District since 2004.

“So the lesson plan and the art-based public project gives students an opportunity to kind of critically reflect on local history and think about the different processes that have allowed for the eight African American cemeteries to be erased from the landscape.”

Part of the program involves students creating memorial plaques which are intended to honor and keep alive the memory of those in these cemeteries.

The plaques will be placed in Whispering Souls Cemetery in Safety Harbor on Monday, Ridgewood Cemetery in Tampa on Wednesday, and Rose Cemetery in Tarpon Springs on Thursday.

“I think it's important that students remember the humanity that makes up our history,” Peck-Bartle said. “It's important for students to really understand how all of us are connected, to see the processes of how we remember who we are, as a communal group of people as a true community, in honoring and respecting those that have been silenced, and unfortunately erased from our landscape, from our visual remembrance.”

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