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Mystery cemetery in Tampa: Journalists chipped away for months to unearth hundreds of lost gravesites.

CHRIS URSO   |   Times Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo, left, and staff photographer James Borchuck are seen near the edge of a property believed to be the former Zion Cemetery Monday, July 1, 2019 in Tampa.
CHRIS URSO | Times Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo, left, and staff photographer James Borchuck are seen near the edge of a property believed to be the former Zion Cemetery Monday, July 1, 2019 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jul. 2, 2019
Updated Jan. 13, 2020

This story begins, improbably, with a man who believes in ghosts.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo worked last fall on a story about a retired county worker, who compiled scores of biographies about people buried at a small Tampa cemetery.

Interesting tale. But the former county employee, Ray Reed, had more to share. He mentioned a mysterious cemetery in the city – a place no one had heard of before.

Keep in mind, though, that Reed also says the dead have spoken to him.

"He tells me that the real story is what happened to Zion. 'I keep finding death certificates for these people that say Zion and I don't even know what that is,' he tells me," Paul recalls. "But this is a guy who also says ghosts visit him at his house, so, I'm like, yeah, whatever. I had my doubts."

RELATED: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Times video journalist James Borchuck, who worked alongside Paul on the initial story published back in September, thought Reed seemed earnest.

Don't dismiss this, he urged.

"He stayed on me," Paul said of his reporting partner. "He kept saying 'I think he's on to something.' "

So they checked it out. At first none of the city historians knew anything about this mystery cemetery. It didn't take long, however, to recognize that Reed was absolutely right. Something was amiss in Tampa.

One of the city's historians found a map of the cemetery named Zion. Paul and James began looking at death records dating back nearly 120 years. Zion appeared over and over – always next to the names of black men, women and children.

As the list of names tied to Zion grew, the reporting duo meticulously reviewed city directories, cemetery records, land deeds, and newspaper clippings.

Paul is a prolific reporter. While he had been chipping away at this project over the past several months, he also has regaled readers with stories about hidden tunnels in Tampa and an alligator that busted into a Clearwater woman's kitchen, among other articles. He has covered a range of topics since joining the Times, after several years at the Tampa Tribune.

James, meanwhile, has recently pioneered the Times initiative to stream video into monitors affixed above our newspaper racks at select retailers across Tampa Bay. Before turning his focus to video journalism, he had spent years as a staff photographer.

The pair devoted about eight hours a week to the project while working on other things. Although Paul was the one corralling all the records, James dug in, too.

"It was so overwhelming that any time James saw me drowning in documents, he'd take a stack and help me go through it," Paul said.

The two pored over every death record they could find in Tampa from 1901 to 1930. Tens of thousands.

What drove them?

"Obsession," says Paul.

"James and I fell into the Zion rabbit hole early on and couldn't escape," he said. "Every historian cited in the story as helping us was in the hole too. There is something exciting about chasing a history that not a single person in the city has ever uncovered."

On June 23, we reported their astonishing findings. Paul and James identified 382 black people buried at long-lost Zion Cemetery between 1913 and 1920. Records and interviews indicate that up to 800 dead were laid to rest there.

Three bodies were moved when developers stumbled upon their graves during a construction project in the 1950s. Ten more bodies also were relocated, records indicate.

No one can say what happened to the rest.

They remain lost.

Were the graves paved over? Do they lay now under apartments, businesses, or city streets? No one knows.

Are there other missing cemeteries in Florida? Two state senators, responding to our story, want answers to that question, too.

Paul and James will keep looking for the missing Zion graves. Because of their exceptional work, they won't be alone. The city has vowed to help. The reporting duo already has performed an important community service. But they aren't satisfied.

"Honestly, I hope we find a record that they have all been moved and are sitting neatly in another cemetery somewhere," Paul said. "I like a good happy ending."

The city of Tampa, and its lost souls, could use one.

Contact the writer at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow on Twitter at @markkatches