An investigation of Zion Cemetery's land can detail the history of Tampa's first African American burial ground

Archaeologists hope to soon begin investigating the property where hundreds of African Americans were buried from 1901 until the cemetery disappeared nearly a century ago.
This section of Robles Park Apartments is  where Tampa’s black community once buried its dead. Zion Cemetery was lost to history after hundreds of bodies were buried there. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
This section of Robles Park Apartments is where Tampa’s black community once buried its dead. Zion Cemetery was lost to history after hundreds of bodies were buried there. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published July 22

TAMPA — The biggest question for many about the former Zion Cemetery is whether any of the people interred in this city’s first African American burial ground remain under the now-developed land stretching across the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave.

Archaeologists hope to have an answer in the coming months when they begin investigating the property where hundreds of African Americans were buried from 1901 until the cemetery disappeared nearly a century ago.

They also hope to uncover other answers, such as the cemetery’s size, layout and population, or non-burial artifacts that remain on the land. Those can provide further insight on what was then known as the Robles Pond community.

"The search can provide clues," said Rebecca O'Sullivan of the University of South Florida's Florida Public Archaeology Network. "It won't provide definitive answers, but it can help us build the case to try and figure out what happened there."

O'Sullivan is part of a Zion consultation committee formed by the Tampa Housing Authority. The authority controls Robles Park Apartments, which sits on part of the former cemetery's land.

The committee, which includes apartment residents and officials from the city and the NAACP, is planning a physical search of the Robles half of the burial ground property. The other half is owned by Richard Gonzmart, who created the Columbia and Ulele restaurants.

The committee was created in reaction to a special report published last month by the Tampa Bay Times.

During a nine-month search, the Times pieced together Zion's lost history but found no records of where the people buried there were moved.

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That leaves the possibility that bodies are still there.

The Times' reported that Zion was built by Richard Doby and linked to the still-existing First Mt. Carmel AME Church and New St. Paul AME Church.

But some history remains fuzzy.

The first plat map of Zion filed with the Hillsborough County Clerk's Office in 1901 shows a 2.5-acre cemetery with burial plots beginning along Florida Avenue and extending back 410 feet.

But a 1922 map has the area abutting Florida Avenue sectioned off for development.

And when Robles Park Apartments were being built in 1951, workers found three caskets in what, according to the 1901 map, would have been the half-acre potter's field, an area for the indigent and unidentified who typically could not afford coffins.

"The layout could have changed," said USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who since 2012 has led the search for unmarked graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Kimmerle might help with the search for Zion.

The investigators will have several tools at their disposal.

Ground penetrating radar scans the earth and detects anomalies under the soil. That data can be studied to determine if those anomalies are the shape and size of graves.

LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, surveys the ground from the air to create high-resolution maps of the surface.

"It looks at the topography," Kimmerle said. "Over time, burials start to sink. Even if the surface of the dirt has been mowed, soil added and tombstones and coffins moved, we can still see rows and depressions left behind."

They can also dig under the surface just far enough so as not to disturb possible graves.

Burials, Kimmerle said, leave an underground "stain" in the shape of its plot. Even if the grave was disinterred, there should be such a mark.

"Evidence always remains that it was once there," O'Sullivan said. "You would also want to keep an eye out for non-burial artifacts because they could help date different soils stains. That would be helpful in figuring out the time-line of how the cemetery was changed over time."

Such an investigation can also help archaeologists estimate how many people were buried there.

The Times discovered 382 death certificates for Zion. Cemetery historian Ray Reed says he has found 747.

Zion had room for as many as 800 burials plus the potter's field.

"Maybe some sections were never used," said Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist.

Eunive Massey, who grew up next to Zion, told the Times that bodies were removed around 1933. But the 96-year-old recalled an archaic process that left graves open with human remains unattended over weekends.

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She remembers the disinterment taking weeks.

"It should have taken much longer," Kimmerle said. "At least months."

In 1926, it took a month to move 50 bodies from an African American cemetery in St. Petersburg, according to news archives.

Making Zion's move more difficult, if Massey’s memory is correct, is that she did not see caskets being removed — just bones.

In that era, it was normal for lower-class families to bury loved ones in shrouds rather than coffins.

"Keeping bones together without a coffin is harder," Kimmerle said.

O'Sullivan says that increases the likelihood that investigators will find human remains on the property even if all the graves were moved.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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