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Graves have been found at Tampa’s lost Zion Cemetery

Archaeologists start the process of ground truthing on segregation-era cemetery land.
Archaeologists Kelsey Kreiser, Rebecca O'Sullivan, Eric Prendergast and Jeff Moates survey an area of Robles Park Village where they believe graves from Zion Cemetery may be located in Tampa, Monday, June 22, 2020.
Archaeologists Kelsey Kreiser, Rebecca O'Sullivan, Eric Prendergast and Jeff Moates survey an area of Robles Park Village where they believe graves from Zion Cemetery may be located in Tampa, Monday, June 22, 2020. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published Jun. 22, 2020
Updated Jun. 22, 2020

Nearly 800 pioneering black residents of Tampa were buried in the segregation-era Zion Cemetery from 1901 through 1929.

They had names and family and friends who loved them. They made contributions to the city.

But in 1929, a developer wanted the land Zion occupied. He removed the headstones, but there is evidence that the people under them remain in their graves. The developer began building on and selling the land while city leaders looked the other way.

That past will be dug up this week.

On Monday, archaeologists began the process of ground truthing — carefully removing layers of soil until they reach the rectangular stain a coffin leaves in the dirt just above it. They will not disturb the coffins.

Archaeologists Eric Prendergast, Rebecca O'Sullivan and Jeff Moates ground truth a closed-off part of Robles Park Village where Zion Cemetery is believed to be in Tampa on Monday, June 22, 2020.
Archaeologists Eric Prendergast, Rebecca O'Sullivan and Jeff Moates ground truth a closed-off part of Robles Park Village where Zion Cemetery is believed to be in Tampa on Monday, June 22, 2020. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

And by afternoon, they had found at least one grave stain and possibly four more in an area that now is part of the 200 block of Robles Park’s Moore Court. The rectangular stain shows at 3 feet, marking the top of the hole the grave digger filled in once the coffin was placed in ground. This coffin is 4.7 feet deep and was located in the cemetery’s Potters Field section for the indigent, according to a 1901 map. The grave seems undisturbed, but archaeologists will need to dig deeper later in the week to know that for sure.

From August through January, archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to confirm the presence of around 300 coffins and believe another 500 could still be there.

Photographic evidence of the coffin soil stains is a necessary step, said Eric Prendergast, principal investigator with private archeology firm Cardno, which has led the search.

"This way, years from now, no one can question whether a cemetery is here," he said.

On June 23, 2019, the Tampa Bay Times first published a report questioning whether Zion was moved. That story inspired the search for answers. Monday’s dig was one day shy of one year after that story was published.

Zion’s 2.5 acre footprint is covered by three different properties — five Robles Park Village apartments that are now vacant and fenced off from the rest the apartment buildings, and warehouse land and a tow lot along the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave.

The ground truthing is taking place on the Robles land, primarily in the 200 blocks of Stratford, Moore and Kentucky courts.

The archaeologists seek to confirm a grave in three different areas — the work will continue for two weeks.

They uploaded their ground penetrating radar data into a GPS that helped them find the particular graves, which are among the most shallow.

Florida Public Archaeology Network archaeologist Rebecca O'Sullivan, left, and Director Jeff Moates, right, sift dirt while looking for artifacts at Robles Park Village where Zion Cemetery is located in Tampa, Monday, June 22, 2020.
Florida Public Archaeology Network archaeologist Rebecca O'Sullivan, left, and Director Jeff Moates, right, sift dirt while looking for artifacts at Robles Park Village where Zion Cemetery is located in Tampa, Monday, June 22, 2020. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

They then used spray paint to mark the borders of the graves. They also outlined the surrounding graves to be sure they do not accidentally disturb those. Then, radar was rolled across those areas to be certain of the accuracy.

Then the machine excavator began its work of peeling away layers of soil.

The archaeologists will also ground truth a 10 by 20 square foot area in Stratford Court where radar indicated there might be disturbed graves.

Eunive Massey, a 97-year-old Tampa woman who grew up next to Zion, previously told the Times that in 1933 headstones were still in that area. Men exhumed those graves but it was done in a haphazard way, she said, leaving bones in the sand around the graves.

Related: Woman remembers haphazardly-moved Zion graves from her childhood

“My cousin found a skull and it had gold teeth in it,” Massey said last year. Because bones could still be beneath the soil in that area, Prendergast said they will be even more careful as they pull back the earth.

Current property owners have committed to reassembling the full historical Zion property. The graves of those buried there won’t be disturbed. A nonprofit intends to create a memorial park there.