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Key dates in the history of Tampa’s forgotten Zion Cemetery

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Tampa’s black community buried its dead at the site along North Florida Avenue.
Construction wrapped up in May 1929 on a new building that housed businesses along North Florida Avenue in Tampa, lower right, according to this article from the Tampa Daily Times. The property once was the site of Zion Cemetery. The building, no longer is use, is still there today. [TAMPA DAILY TIMES | Tampa Daily Times]
Published Jun. 19
Updated Aug. 28

The first burials occurred by 1905 at Zion Cemetery, Tampa’s first officially recognized burial ground for African-Americans.

THE FORGOTTEN: What happened to nearly 400 people buried at Zion Cemetery?

By 1923, the cemetery at Florida and Virginia avenues had disappeared from public documents and news reports, leaving leaders in the city’s black community to wonder now whether the bodies were moved or remain in the ground.

Here are key dates in the history of Zion.

1894

Nov. 24: Richard Doby, a prominent African-American land developer, purchased the plot of land that would later become Zion Cemetery. He bought it for $1 from Isaac W. Warner.

Mount Carmel AME Church begins holding services on Sundays in the one-room, wooden Robles Pond Elementary School at 3819 N Florida Ave., according to a federal document recorded by the Works Progress Administration. The school is on Richard Doby’s property.

1901

February: A map of Zion Cemetery is filed with the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office.

1905

August: First mention of Zion in a newspaper article, though not by name. A teenager was said to have been buried in the African-American cemetery north of city limits — the description later used by newspapers routinely to describe Zion Cemetery.

1907

Nov. 27: Doby sells the cemetery for $300 to Florida Industrial and Commercial Co. Among the company’s officers is Daniel A. Perrin, former pastor of St. Paul AME Church.

Mount Carmel AME Church moves to 415 E Lake Ave. at the corner of Florida Avenue, a block away from Zion Cemetery. Mount Carmel AME spins off another church, today’s Greater Mount Carmel AME Church at 4209 N 34th St.

1912

James J. Head, a former county treasurer and a former Confederate commander, claims he is the rightful owner of Zion Cemetery because he paid its back taxes. Records show Florida Industrial and Commercial retained ownership.

1914

The city limits of Tampa has grown to include the Zion Cemetery. The privately published Polk City Directory for Tampa lists Zion for the first time. The address is Florida Avenue near Buffalo Avenue. Buffalo was later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

1915

Zion receives a numerical address in the Polk City Directory — 3801 N Florida Ave.

March: Zion Cemetery is auctioned off by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to pay a debt owed to Orleans Manufacturing Co. by Florida Industrial and Commercial Co. It’s not clear who purchased the land.

1916

“Mt. Carmel AME” is scribbled at the corner of the Zion property on an atlas map published by Hillsborough County.

1919

Memorial Cemetery becomes Tampa’s second official African-American burial ground.

1921

New Salem Christian Church appears in the city directory at 320 Ruth Ave. That address is on Zion Cemetery property.

1922

A map from insurance company Sanborn shows an African-American cemetery where Zion is located but does not include a name. An unnamed chapel is also on the plot of land.

1923

December: A Tampa Times article lists Zion in a story about prominent cemeteries.

Zion Cemetery does not appear in the annual Polk City Directory. It never reappears.

1925

July: The Tampa Tribune reports that black communities near Florida and Lake avenues are getting squeezed out by white developments. Zion Cemetery is in this area.

1926

Jan. 28: Alice W. Fuller of Los Angeles sells Zion for $1 to Tampa developer H.P. Kennedy. It is not clear who sold it to Fuller or when.

May: The Tampa Tribune reports about a mass reburial of bodies, from Tampa’s Catholic Cemetery to Myrtle Hill Cemetery.

August: The Tampa Times reports that 50 bodies were removed from a black cemetery in St. Petersburg.

1929

February: The Tampa Times reports that H.P. Kennedy obtained approval to build a five-shop storefront at 3700 N Florida Ave. This is on the Zion Cemetery property.

1931

There is no reference to a cemetery at Florida and Virginia avenues, named or unnamed, on a Sanborn map.

1951

November: While building the Robles Park Apartments, on land that includes part of the Zion site, crews unearth three caskets. The city tells reporters that other bodies had been moved in 1925 by the unnamed owner of the land at the time.

Minutes from Housing Authority meetings include discussion of the caskets and the need to reinter them, but there’s no mention of halting construction or searching for more graves.

2019

The current owners of the Zion land, the Tampa Housing Authority and restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, learn from the Tampa Bay Times that a forgotten cemetery had been located there.


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