TAMPA — From August through January, archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to detect around 300 anomalies they believed were coffins four to six feet below the surface of land once belonging to the erased segregation-era, all-Black Zion Cemetery.
They said hundreds more could still be there, undetected.
The archaeologists can now confirm the detected anomalies are coffins.
From June 22 through July 3, the archaeologists carefully dug into the acre of Zion property belonging to the Tampa Housing Authority and where five now-vacant Robles Park Village apartment buildings sit.
Over the course of 10 working days, they uncovered 49 rectangular stains a coffin leaves in the dirt just above it. Each stain matched the location of one of the anomalies.
They then dug deeper into two of those spots — one in the cemetery’s potter’s field for the indigent and unknown and another in an area for traditional burials.
A coffin was discovered in each.
“This tells us that every anomaly detected by the ground-penetrating radar is an intact coffin,” said Eric Prendergast, principal investigator with private archaeology firm Cardno, which has led the search.
But they also found evidence some were moved.
That matches the 2019 account that Eunive Massey, a 97-year-old Tampa woman who grew up next to Zion, gave to the Times: That in 1933, headstones were still present and that men exhumed some graves.
“We did find one grave shaft where the coffin was gone and what was left was a pile frozen in time of the coffin hardware mixed with exotic conch shells that were grave accompaniments left by their loved ones,” Prendergast said.
The shells are symbolic of the water and water symbolizes the passage to the afterlife.
That empty plot was in area where the soil above the graves looked “greatly disturbed,” Prendergast said, and the empty grave looked like it was then exhumed by shovel.
How many were moved, who moved them and why remains a mystery.
The Florida Public Archaeology Network provided the Tampa Bay Times with a list of 770 people who death records place as buried at Zion. The Times then searched for those names in the city of Tampa’s cemeteries, plus the other two all-Black burial grounds from the 1930s — Memorial Park Cemetery and Rest Haven Memorial Park Cemetery.
Eleven names were found in other cemeteries, three at the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery and eight in the private Memorial. But city records indicate those in Woodlawn were moved prior to Zion being erased.
The 2.5-acre Zion was established in 1901 and remained an active cemetery through the 1920s.
Then a white developer purchased the land and in 1929 the city issued him permits to build on and sell the cemetery property that stretched across the 3700 block of N Florida Ave. All the headstones were removed, but hundreds of bodies were not.
A Times report in June 2019 that questioned if coffins were still there led to the archaeological investigation.
Today, the land is split among the Housing Authority, warehouse property and a tow lot.
The three parcels will one day be reassembled and made into a memorial park.