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Telling the story of Tampa’s forgotten Zion Cemetery

The search for answers took reporters on a journey through old public records, newspaper clippings and headstones.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo searches Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa for bodies that may originally have been buried in the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. The search confirmed what Guzzo found in public records: Only seven of some 382 people buried at Zion were moved to Memorial Park. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times] [BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jun. 23
Updated Aug. 28

Examining what became of long-forgotten Zion Cemetery required poring over data from as far back as the late 1800s.

Zion, 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.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo. [BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times]

The search started with the hardbound city directory books that were published annually by R.L. Polk Co. and now available in digital form from the city of Tampa.

Zion Cemetery first appeared in the city directory in 1914, the first year the city limits extended as far north as the cemetery property but years after Zion was established in 1901.

Tampa Bay Times photographer James Borchuck. [BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times]

With help from the Tampa Bay History Center, the Tampa Bay Times turned up three maps of Zion — a 1901 document filed with the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office, a 1916 atlas published by Hillsborough County, and a 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map from the History Center’s collection.

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

At the request of the Times, the old maps were laid over modern street grids by Rebecca O’Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, pinpointing the location of Zion Cemetery — the 3700 block of North Florida Avenue.

The next step was to find who might have been buried there. A 1929 article about Zion, found at the digital collection Newspapers.com, provided a window of time. The genealogy website FamilySearch.org served as a source of local death certificates.

A search of the website turned up death certificates for thousands of African-Americans in Tampa between 1901 and 1929. Reading each one produced a list of 382 certificates with Zion Cemetery as the burial place.

From there, the Times set out to find whether bodies of these 382 people had been relocated.

The search included old editions of the former Tampa Tribune and Tampa Times, and the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times.

Public records also were reviewed, including a list of death certificates from city-owned cemeteries in the 1920s, a database of all 30,000 people interred in city-owned cemeteries, and digitized copies of City Council minutes from the 1920s.

The search revealed that three bodies from Zion were moved to the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery. In addition, the relocation of two cemeteries but not Zion was reported in news articles, both in 1926. Another article decades later revealed that three bodies were unearthed during construction on the property.

Privately owned Memorial Park Cemetery, the city’s second African-American cemetery, opened while Zion was still in use. Seven names from the Zion list also appear on Memorial Park records at the genealogy website fl-genweb.org. To double check, the Times walked Memorial Park searching for graves from the early 20th century. Only the seven names matched the Zion list.

Having accounted for just 13 of the 382 names, the Times sought answers from anyone with ties to owners and managers of the property through the years. The search led to newspaper archives, to microfilm records at the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office, to churches and to the current owners of the property.

On two occasions, the Times gathered members of African-American churches with long histories in Tampa to present a slide show of its findings. Video recordings were conducted of interviews with those with a possible stake in Zion Cemetery.

The search for what became of the bodies continues.

Among records reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times in its search for Zion Cemetery was a police report from 1951 detailing the discovery of three caskets during a construction project. [Tampa Police Department] [TAMPA POLICE DEPARTMENT | Tampa Police Department]

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