Historically speaking, here in Pasco County, we’ve documented eight known African-American cemeteries.
These sites, surviving from the days of segregation, not only represent the final resting place for black Americans, but they are also the storage house of our local African-American history.
What might be a surprise to some is the fact that of these eight historic African-American cemeteries, only five still exist while the others have been completely destroyed by agricultural and residential development.
And, barely hanging on is the Oaks Cemetery on St. Joe Road in eastern Pasco, more commonly known as the Bee Tree Branch African-American Cemetery.
So, this week, in an effort to preserve the history and heritage of the Bee Tree Branch Cemetery, we take a look at the cemetery’s background and the problems plaguing its future survival.
While we don’t know exactly when the Bee Tree Branch Cemetery was established, the earliest indications of an African-American community in the area came in February 1894, with the formation of a school.
According to Pasco County School Board minutes, Henry Elijah came before the board asking that a special school be granted for black children 'near' St. Thomas. On motion the board granted the school with Henry Elijah as supervisor and fixed the salary of the teacher at $20 per month.
By the late 1890s, with camps established at Blanton, San Antonio, Saint Joe, and Pasco Station, the area's turpentine industry took off employing many of the area’s African-American residents with such job as chippers, wood cutters, dippers, still hands, and teamsters.
As the turpentine industry grew, so did the African-American population in and around Bee Tree Branch.
According to the 1900 census, there were several African-American families living near what is now the Bee Tree Branch Cemetery and as time passed this population only grew.
According to a survey prepared by Archaeological Consultants Inc (ACI), the land containing today’s Bee Tree Branch Cemetery was first purchased by the Orange Belt Railroad in 1888 and was later sold to George and Mary Hancock, who owned adjacent lands.
Following their deaths, the Hancock children, Henry, Ward, and Ida, inherited the property, which was subdivided among the children through a series of quit claim deeds dating from 1936 to 1941.
As a result, Ward Hancock and his wife, Corinne M. Tait, became owners of the land containing the cemetery.
According to informant interviews, Ward Hancock let many of the “colored folks” bury their relative on the property because they were poor. At one time, Ward was going to deed the cemetery over to the “colored folks,” however this transfer never occurred.
Following Ward’s death on June 8, 1961, Corinne began the process of having the property put solely in her name, and, before her death in 1992, she began selling off these lands.
However, it wasn’t until after her death in October 1993, that Harold and Mary J. Krig and Behrouz and Claudia Medani purchased the more than 400 acres that contained the historic cemetery.
These new owners grew tomatoes on the property, until May 2006 when they sold the property to ETR Pasco, LLC headed by Eric T. Reardon, ETR’s president.
In June 2007, ETR Pasco proposed to build more 300 homes on the former tomato farm. Designs for the subdivision called for building more than three dozen homes atop of the cemetery.
However, these plans never materialized. According to the Tampa Tribune, county officials recommended the project be denied, saying it was out of line with the property around it and with the county’s long range plan.
In addition, lacking public water and sewer, the project was too close to the Cypress Creek Wellfield to make 300 septic tanks environmentally feasible.
So, What Remains of the Bee Tree Branch Cemetery?
According to ACI, while no evidence remains, a metal fence and wooden posts once surrounded the cemetery, estimated to be .62 acres in size or 133 feet by 66 feet.
Within this fenced area were cypress, wood, marble, and concrete headstones marking the gravesites. Research suggests the cemetery contained between 20-50 individual burials.
While the wooden markers likely rotted away, informant interviews indicate that other markers were stolen from the cemetery and the gravesites of some were desecrated.
Up to 20 headstones were reported as being in the cemetery in the early 1990s, some of which were laying in broken pieces on the ground.
Field reconnaissance of the cemetery in 2008 resulted in the observation of only two markers remaining: one actual headstone for WWI veteran Rudolph Washington, and the remnants of the desecrated burial vault of WWII veteran Johnnie Jackson.
According to Pasco News, $1000 in damages was caused when vandals broke into the vault and casket of the World War II Army private. The incident reportedly occurred sometime between November 23, 1961 and September 7, 1980, when it was discovered by Truman Campbell.
Today, the cemetery still remains in disarray with no maintenance being provided and, with the exception of the two discontiguously marked burials, the historic Bee Tree Branch Cemetery has been lost except in the memory of a few individuals.
Rudolph Washington, born May 8, 1897, joined the Army in September 1918 and enlisted as a Private First Class, serving in the Field Regiment, Squad 354 to Platoon School. Rudolph Washington died on July 22, 1971 and today his VA marker is the only headstone remaining in the historic cemetery.
Johnnie Jackson, born in 1917, enlisted in the Army on October 8, 1942 as a Private First Class with Company B. The term of his enlistment was for the duration of WWII “or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law.” Johnnie Jackson died on November 23, 1961.
Research and informant interviews indicate the following individuals are also buried in the Bee Tree Branch Cemetery: John Washington, Cora Washington, Infant son of Rachael and Rudolph Washington, Sarah Debro, Parlee Jenkins, Catherine Mahone, Jimmy Grant, Mary Roberts, John Roberts, and Leslie Roberts.