Published: January 25, 2024
BARTOW, Fla. (Jan. 25, 2024) – The Polk County Board of County Commissioners today hosted a historical marker unveiling and dedication ceremony at Shady Oaks Gardens Cemetery in Bartow. The ceremony honored the 862 people buried at Shady Oaks Gardens, which serves as Polk County’s primary “pauper” cemetery.
Shady Oaks Gardens functions as a final resting place for Polk County’s deceased residents who did not have the funds for burial, including indigent hospital patients, inmates, unknowns and coroner’s cases involving crimes. In those instances, Polk County pays for a private burial. The county has run Shady Oaks Gardens since 1963.
The historical marker includes language about the history of Shady Oaks Gardens and designates it as a Polk County Heritage Site.
During his remarks at the ceremony, Polk County Commissioner Rick Wilson said, “The placement of this historical marker and the cemetery’s designation as a Polk County Heritage Site resulted from a collaboration among multiple divisions of Polk County government. From Roads and Drainage to Real Estate Services, from Facilities Management to Health and Human Services, as well as Parks and Natural Resources, they all understood and valued the importance of honoring every single one of the individuals who are interred at Shady Oaks Gardens.”
Polk County’s Indigent Health Care program is currently working on a database of the people buried at Shady Oaks Gardens.
“We’re building a database because the people buried here are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,” said Joy Johnson, administrator for the Health and Human Services Division. “We need to honor the lives they led. We also need to ensure that we have accurate records, especially as people in our society get more into exploring their family roots. And we want to make sure everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Musician Moses Williams (1919-1988) is among those buried at Shady Oaks Gardens. Williams moved to Florida from Mississippi when he was 11, and he worked in show business and as an itinerant farm worker. He played the “diddley bow,” which is also known as a one-string guitar, and he used his musical skills as a side hustle. Lyrics from his song “I Was Natalie Roberta’s Son” are included on the historical marker:
I say, I always study, Lord, (how) to travel over in this world.
I said, I always appreciate, Lord, (that) I was Natalie Roberta’s son.
I said, a few years I stayed at home, Lord, she know how to raise a son.
I said, I’m gonna study something, Lord, to do Lord when I’m gone.
I had to hold up on my schooling now, Lord, I told them I don’t know what to do.
I said, I had a many, a many, a many a (day), Lord, (I) sure enough didn’t know what to do.
“Moses Williams’ life was a great example of the many people who traveled between labor camps,” said folklorist Dwight DeVane. “His life was representative of the people who came to Florida between 1910 and 1930. Many African Americans were getting away from sharecropping and looking for opportunities in a cash economy.”
Being deemed a Polk County Heritage Site helps the county better preserve and promote the cemetery’s history.
“This site is of historical significance,” said Tina Peak, chairperson of Polk County’s Historical Commission Historic Marker program. “It serves Polk County’s residents regardless of their circumstances in life. Everyone is worthy of being remembered.”