Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tampa History at Oaklawn Cemetery

I was telling Susan not long ago about Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown Tampa, across the street from the Morgan Street Jail. It's one of the oldest cemeteries in the area, founded in 1850, and a lot of the people who built Tampa are buried there or in the adjoining Catholic cemetery, "St. Louis." About half a dozen friends and I went on Halloween for a tour several years ago. A reenacting woman, Maureen Patrick, dressed in 1880s mourning clothes, gave tours all day, telling anecdotes about notable people who were buried there. She herself was pretending to be a woman who was buried there, I think, in the 1880s. Here is her website, which I just found:

Her favorite grave and mine is that of William and Nancy Ashley. To help me establish just why their story is such a big deal and how it came to be, a few facts about Ashley... William Ashley was a Justice of the Peace, Tampa's first City Clerk and was considered a very important person in mid-19th century Tampa society. I found one thing online about him making a toast at the Independence Day celebration at Fort Brooke (where Channelside is now located) in 1847. That day, toasts were also made by all the other major players in town. There are only a few streets in downtown Tampa named for powerful men of that era. One is named for William Ashley - Ashley Drive - and another street is named for his best friend, Tampa's 9th mayor, John Jackson (Jackson is actually the person who named both of those streets when he laid out the city grid in 1847).

In the days before the Civil War, William had a slave named Nancy. They fell madly in love with each other. After the War, they lived together as husband and wife, although they were forbidden by law to officially marry. When William lay dying in 1973, he asked John Jackson to ensure that Nancy could be buried with him when her time came. John promised he would see to it. Several months after William's death, Nancy died as well, many said that it was of a broken heart. This is their epitaph, carved into the stone under a weeping willow, written by John Jackson:

"Here lies William Ashley and Nancy Ashley.
Master and Servant.
Faithful to each other in that relation in life, in death they are not separated.
Stranger, consider and be wiser. In the Grave, all human distinction of race or caste mingle together in one common dust.
To commemorate their fidelity to each other, this stone was erected by their Executor, John Jackson, 1873."

One newspaper reporter in 2003 said that this made Oaklawn Cemetery the first intergrated institution in Tampa... Probably, the county too... and, possibly, even the state.

John Jackson and his wife, Ellen, were also buried there, in the Catholic section of the cemetery. Their graves were moved to Myrtle Hill Cemetery sometime after 1917 for reasons unknown to me. John died in 1887. He had immigrated to the US from Ireland in 1841. When he wasn't doing the city planning or being mayor, he and his wife ran a general store at the corner of Tampa and Washington Streets downtown.

Just had to share...

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