What are the stories of the people buried in Zion Cemetery?
The first African-American cemetery recognized by the city of Tampa was established in 1901 but disappeared by the 1920s, leaving leaders in the city’s black community to wonder now whether the bodies were moved or remain in the ground.
THE FORGOTTEN: What happened to nearly 400 people buried at Zion Cemetery?
Old public records reveal names plus dates of birth and death for 382 of them, sometimes even their occupations, home addresses and marital status. Otherwise, information is scarce.
Here’s what the Tampa Bay Times learned out about 11 of them, largely through newspaper archives. During the two decades when people were buried at Zion Cemetery, African-Americans tended to make headlines only if they were prominent members of their community or when they died tragic deaths.
Sam Hopkins (1885 -1913): Hopkins, 28, was found dead Aug. 3, 1913, under what a newspaper initially described as “mysterious circumstances” at the Crystal Ice Co. plant, Ruby Street and Maryland Avenue. Later, a news report said the autopsy found Hopkins had died of natural causes. A policeman quoted in the report noted that Hopkins died during his first day on the job: “The work must not have agreed with him.” The death certificate says he was born in Georgia and married.
Henry Jones (1887 – 1913): Jones died at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 4, 1913, when he was struck by lightning near Michigan Avenue along the Hillsborough River. He was 36. The Tampa Times wrote that he was driving a horse and mule for Holtsinger Improvement Co. at the time. Born in Georgia, Jones lived at 212 Chestnut St., according to his death certificate, and was married.
Perry Maxwell (1878 – 1913). Maxwell was stabbed to death 9 p.m. Dec. 13, 1913, by William Archer in front of Archer’s dry-cleaning business, according to the Tampa Tribune. He was 35. Witnesses said a fight broke out after Archer accused Maxwell of using bad language in the presence of Archer’s wife. Maxwell, according to his death certificate, was born in North Carolina and worked as a laborer.
Perry Johnson (1896 – 1913): Friends of Johnson left him to die, according to the Tampa Tribune. Johnson, 17, a foster child who could not swim, went swimming with two companions at the estuary channel near the Seaboard viaduct on July 24, 1913, the newspaper reported. His friends coaxed him into deeper water, not knowing his limitations. Once they found out, they swam back to shore and left him to drown, according to the Tribune.
John Newton (1858 – 1915): Newton was a deacon who also ran a small lunch counter next to Mohr’s Bakery on Tampa Street. In 1913, when a customer refused to pay his bill in full, Newton grabbed a kitchen axe and went after the skinflint, according to a newspaper account. Other customers broke up the altercation before anyone was seriously injured. Newton, 57, a native of Wilmington, N.C., died in 1915, according to his death certificate. He was married.
Caroline Hicks (1840 – 1915): Hicks, 75, was described in a short obituary as the “well known” domestic for Hillsborough County Sheriff William Spencer. She was sick for more than three months before she died. She was survived by two sons. Her death certificate lists her address as 804 Kay St. Hicks was one of seven people buried at Zion Cemetery then later moved to the city’s second African-American cemetery, Memorial Park.
Julia Matthews (1871 – 1916): A two-sentence obituary says Matthews was “highly respected” but not why. She died at 45. Her death certificate lists her as a widow born in South Carolina who was employed as a domestic worker and lived at 1612 Platt St.
L.G. Caro (1839 – 1916): Perhaps the best-known among those buried at Zion Cemetery, Caro was one of Tampa’s oldest African-American residents and the minister who conducted most weddings for local black couples, his obituary says. He broke a city record in June 1913 he when he performed 22 weddings in one week, according to the Tampa Times. The previous high mark was 11. “He is getting so adept at the game that he can perform a ceremony, predict the outcome, scratch one foot with the other, collect his fee and figure on his Sunday morning at the same time,” the newspaper reported. A federal document recorded by the Works Progress Administration says Caro was a founder of the Greater Bethel Baptist Church in the 1890s. Caro applied to run for the Tampa City Council but later pulled out, the Weekly Tribune reported in 1904. His standing in the African-American community made his endorsements of white candidates a story for the local newspapers.
Leroy Williams (1905 – 1917): A boy of 11, Leroy Williams drowned while swimming in the Hillsborough River between Fortune Street and the Atlantic Coast Line railroad bridge on July 29, 1917, according to the Tampa Times. He did not know how to swim but waded into a hole anyway and died after a short struggle.
Jessie Green (1880-1918): A “voodoo doctor” is how Green, 38, was described by the Tampa Times following his murder May 31, 1918. Green died in the Clara Frye Hospital but hospital attendants could not locate his clothes for burial. Police found the garments at his home, where they also found fellow voodoo practitioner E.J. Chatfield. Chatfield was in possession of Green’s $500 life insurance policy. Chatfield, it turned out, had treated Green with a concoction “containing iron nails” so he was identified as a suspect in the news article. No followup records could be found. Green’s death certificate lists him as a South Carolina native and a widower.
Thomas Hicks (1871 – 1919): Hicks, 48, was a saloonkeeper and considered prominent in the African-American community, the Tampa Tribune reported in 1918. His death certificate says he was born in Georgia and lived at same address as Caroline Hicks, also buried in Zion Cemetery. Hicks was one of seven people buried at Zion Cemetery then later moved to the city’s second African-American cemetery, Memorial Park. He shares a family plot there with Caroline Hicks. How they were related was not clear.