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First coffin is uncovered at Tampa’s erased Zion Cemetery

Archaeologists will continue their work to prove people are still buried all over the property.

TAMPA — In 1951, a construction crew accidentally unearthed three caskets while building the 200 block of the Robles Park Village’s Moore Court.

Back then, city officials told the Tampa Housing Authority that the graves belonged to Zion Cemetery. The all-black, segregation-era burial ground had been moved in the 1920s, the city claimed, and those were likely the only caskets left behind.

The Housing Authority continued to build the housing project without further exploration.

On Friday, a Zion casket — or at least, what was left of one — was again uncovered in Moore Court, but this time as part of a careful archaeological excavation. And no one pretended it was an exception.

This era’s Housing Authority hired the archaeologists to determine if their portion of Zion’s 2.5-acre footprint is an active cemetery that was erased nearly a century ago by a white developer who removed headstones, but not graves.

Friday’s discovery moved the answer close to yes.

“We are almost all the way confident,” said Eric Prendergast, principal investigator with private archaeology firm Cardno, which has led the search.

Related: 10 important moments in the story of Tampa's lost Zion Cemetery

Last August, the archaeologists detected graves on the property using ground-penetrating radar. The same team confirmed Zion graves on neighboring warehouse land and a tow lot. About 300 caskets were detected, but the archaeologists believe there are hundreds more.

Their work this week is meant to validate the radar’s data.

By Tuesday, the archaeologists had exposed around a dozen rectangular soil stains around 3.5 feet beneath the surface of Moore Court, denoting coffins likely were beneath.

They went a few feet deeper to get to one coffin on Friday.

Florida Public Archaeology Network archaeologist Ryan Harke takes a break from digging a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa.
Florida Public Archaeology Network archaeologist Ryan Harke takes a break from digging a grave shaft at Zion Cemetery in Tampa. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

“All of the anomalies we found in that area with remote sensing were around the same size and depth,” Prendergast said. “So there is no need to dig them all up. That one coffin proves all the anomalies in that area are graves with coffins.”

Over 18 hours split between Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, archaeologists dug up the soil above the coffin, a few millimeters at a time, first with shovels and then trowels, to ensure they did not accidentally disturb it.

The coffin top was more of a shadow than a solid object. The wood had long ago deteriorated and mixed with the soil to become a dark stain.

“It’s the ghost of a coffin,” Cardno archaeologist KC Allen said.

They only exposed the top of the coffin for photographic evidence so the existence of a cemetery can never be questioned.

Because there was no sign of soil disturbance above the coffin, which would mean that the grave might have been dug up, Prendergast said, there was no reason to go further and look for bones.

“We are almost certain the body is there — 95 percent,” he said.

Then they stopped digging.

Out of respect for the deceased, the archaeologists requested that the Tampa Bay Times not photograph the coffin.

“Doing right about past sins, racist motivations, and dishonor shown to black families and their ancestors, sometimes require we literally dig up and expose those deeds,” Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority, wrote on Facebook. “Finding the truth is sometimes hard, sad, emotional and messy but it always informs and strengthens.”

Still, according to a 1901 map of the cemetery, that casket was part of Zion’s potter’s field, an area for the indigent and unknown. That section is the most likely to have bodies left behind when a burial ground is moved, Prendergast said.

“They might have had unmarked graves that couldn’t be found,” he said.

But Prendergast is confident caskets are beneath nearly all of Zion’s footprint.

That’s why his crew will expose coffin stains and then one physical coffin in the Zion areas where traditional burials occurred. On Robles land, that also includes the 200 blocks of Kentucky and Stratford courts.

The archaeologists are also excavating an area in the 200 block of Stratford Court where Eunive Massey, a 97-year-old Tampa woman who grew up next to Zion, remembers seeing bodies exhumed in 1933 in a haphazard manner that left bones behind.

Together, those steps — all on Robles land — will help archaeologists better understand what happened at Zion.

So far, the grave stains the archaeologists have found match the anomalies detected by ground-penetrating radar, including some beneath sidewalks they demolished in Stratford Court. Other stains continue under buildings, likely meaning more are under the structure.

And there is disturbance in one section of Stratford that looks as though some graves were exhumed, as the former neighbor said, though more investigation is needed to be certain. The question would be why some were moved but not hundreds of others.

Cardno archaeologist Chase Searles skims an area around a grave during ground truthing at Zion Cemetery.
Cardno archaeologist Chase Searles skims an area around a grave during ground truthing at Zion Cemetery. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Nearly 800 were buried in Zion between 1901 and the mid-1920s.

Then a white developer purchased the land and in 1929 the city issued him permits to build on and sell the cemetery land that stretched across the 3700 block of N Florida Ave.

Two decades later, about half the former Zion property was used by the Housing Authority for Robles Park, originally only for white people.

Some Robles residents whispered over the decades that five of their 67 buildings were built on a cemetery.

But the rumor wasn’t taken seriously until the Tampa Bay Times published a report in June 2019 stating there was no evidence the bodies were moved along with the headstones.

Related: Hundreds of people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

All the coffins will remain in the ground and the three parcels will be reunited into a Zion memorial park.

The fence around the Housing Authority’s Zion land has been covered in a wrap that tells the history of the cemetery. It includes the names of all those buried there.

Those include L.G. Caro, a minister who helped found Bethel Baptist Church and was considered a key political endorsement for white politicians. But it appears no one stepped forward to stop his grave from being erased.

“They didn’t respect those people back when they covered them up,” said Reva Iman, president of the Robles Park Village Tenants Council. “So, we’ll give them their respect now.”