TAMPA — In June 2019, the Tampa Bay Times published its first report questioning whether Zion Cemetery’s graves were exhumed before the land was developed.
Two months later, archaeologists confirmed via ground-penetrating radar that coffins were still there, under public housing, warehouses and a tow lot along the 3700 block of N Florida Avenue.
The story of the segregation-era Black burial ground took two years to compile, from the start of the Times’ investigation in September 2018 through the archaeologists’ physical confirmation of coffins in June 2020.
The story will continue to unfold in the coming years as the businesses on that land move, the buildings come down, a memorial park is constructed and, hopefully, some of the gaps in Zion’s history are filled in.
The Times has compiled the known history — told so far through dozens of stories — into one timeline:
Robles Pond, a 45-acre all-Black community linked by sandy roads, is established in an area then outside city limits. The rough boundaries are Florida Avenue to Central Avenue, and Virginia Avenue to Lake Avenue. The “pond” in Robles Pond is less than a mile south of the community.
September: Mount Carmel AME Church begins holding services on Sundays in the one-room wooden Robles Pond Elementary School at 3819 N Florida Ave.
November: Richard Doby, a prominent African American land developer, purchases about 3 acres along the 3800 block of N Florida Avenue in the Robles Pond neighborhood for $140 from Isaac W. Warner. That land includes the schoolhouse.
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February: A map of the 2.5-acre Zion Cemetery located on Doby’s 3 acres of land is filed with the Hillsborough County Clerk. The school remains on the other half-acre of the property, in a corner cut out for it.
Mount Carmel AME Church moves to 415 E Lake Ave. at the corner of Florida Avenue, a block away from Zion Cemetery.
November: Doby sells Zion for $300 to the Black-owned Florida Industrial and Commercial Co. Among the company’s officers is Daniel A. Perrin, former pastor of St. Paul AME Church.
Though newspaper articles previously mention burials at Zion Cemetery, it is listed in official death records for the first time. They state that 26 people are buried there that year.
Death records report that 117 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
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. Head is initially awarded the cemetery, but Florida Industrial and Commercial Co. ultimately retains ownership.
Death records report that 47 people are buried in Zion.
Death records report that 101 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
The privately published Polk City Directory for Tampa lists Zion Cemetery for the first time. The address is Florida Avenue near Buffalo Avenue. Buffalo is later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Death records report that 97 people are buried in Zion.
Zion Cemetery receives a numerical address in the Polk City Directory: 3801 N Florida Ave.
Death records report that 111 people are buried in Zion.
March: Zion 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 purchases the land.
“Mt. Carmel AME” is scribbled at the corner of a “Colored Cemetery” property — where Zion Cemetery was located — on an atlas map published by Hillsborough County. Historians believe that means the church managed the cemetery.
Death records report that 92 people are buried in Zion.
Death records report that 88 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Death records report that 68 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Death records report that 10 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Death records report that 10 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Death records report that one person is buried in Zion Cemetery.
Death records report that no one is buried in Zion Cemetery.
Zion Cemetery does not appear in the annual Polk City Directory. It never reappears.
The city boundaries expand to include Zion and the Robles Pond neighborhood.
Death records report that one person is buried in Zion. That marks the final burial reported. In all, death records report 769 burials, but archaeologists believe there are more.
December: A newspaper article listed Zion in a story about prominent cemeteries.
July: Newspapers report that black communities near Florida and Lake avenues are getting squeezed out by white developments. Zion is in this area.
January: Alice W. Fuller of Los Angeles sells Zion Cemetery for $1 to Tampa developer H.P. Kennedy. Fuller is the daughter of Warner, who sold the land to Doby in 1894. It is not clear who sold it to Fuller or when. Fuller and Kennedy are both white.
May: Newspapers report a mass reburial of bodies from Zion’s neighboring all-white Catholic Cemetery to Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
A report issued by the Tampa Urban league says Robles Pond has a population of 315.
Florida Avenue addresses are moved back one block. What had been the 3800 block where Zion Cemetery was located becomes the 3700 block.
February: H.P. Kennedy obtains approval from the City of Tampa to build a five-shop storefront at 3700 N Florida Ave. That is Zion Cemetery property.
March: H.P. Kennedy successfully petitions Tampa City Council to have taxes canceled for 1927 and 1928 on the Zion property because it is used as a cemetery.
There is no reference to a cemetery at Florida and Virginia avenues, named or unnamed, on a Sanborn map. But, Eunive Massey, who lived next to it, told the Times in 2019 that Zion Cemetery is still there in 1931. A scaled-down version sat behind the storefront and three homes. The entrance was moved from Florida Avenue to the southern end of the property along Ruth Avenue, she said.
Blue Moon Poultry Shop opens in a second storefront next to those built by Kennedy. That is also Zion Cemetery property.
According to Eunive Massey in 2019, some graves are exhumed from Zion but she does not know how many, who or why. All the headstones are removed and the cemetery’s existence is erased even though hundreds of bodies are still there.
Kennedy begins selling parcels of the Zion Cemetery property. One buyer is Mary Jane Pleus, who purchases the land her Blue Moon Poultry Shop sits on.
May: The Robles Pond neighborhood, including the Zion Cemetery land, is targeted as a location for white public housing projects during a Tampa Housing Authority meeting.
June: Robles Pond residents ask the Tampa Housing Authority to not take the community through eminent domain. They are denied.
July: Mount Carmel AME files a lawsuit against the Housing Authority to stop the eminent domain. They lose.
November: While building the Robles Park Apartments, on land that included part of the Zion Cemetery site, crews unearth three caskets. The city tells reporters that all the other bodies had been moved in 1925. Minutes from Housing Authority meetings include discussion of the three caskets and the need to re-inter them, but there is no mention of halting construction or searching for more graves.
April: Robles Park Village opens.
Summer: Barbara Feliciano, who was among the first to reside in Robles Park Village, tells the Times in 2019 that sets of human remains from Zion Cemetery are discovered in the summer of 1953 behind the storefront on the 3700 block of N Florida Avenue.
October: The 67-building Robles Park Village is officially dedicated.
July: A skeleton is found by a man digging to bury trash in the backyard of his Ruth Avenue home, which sits on land where Zion Cemetery was located.
September: The Times profiles Ray Reed’s efforts to discover the identities of the thousands buried without headstones in Tampa’s Cemetery for All People at 5901 N 22nd St. He also mentions he keeps finding death records from the early 1900s for Black people buried in Zion Cemetery, but he doesn’t know where or what it was. The Times begins investigating.
June: The Times publishes its first report on Zion Cemetery that questions whether bodies were moved.
July: The Tampa Housing Authority hires archaeologists to survey their piece of the Zion Cemetery land occupied by five buildings.
August: Archaeologists announce that ground-penetrating radar has discovered 126 caskets on the Housing Authority’s Zion Cemetery property. The Housing Authority begins relocating the 29 families living in the five buildings erected on the cemetery footprint
November: Archaeologists announce that ground-penetrating radar has discovered 17 caskets on a piece of Zion Cemetery property that is now home to Sunstate Wrecker Services towing lot.
January: Archaeologists announce that ground-penetrating radar has discovered 115 caskets on Zion Cemetery property that is now home to warehouses and the vacant storefront that Kennedy built. The land is now owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. To date, around 300 caskets have been discovered by ground-penetrating radar. Archaeologists say there are likely hundreds more. None of the bodies will be moved.
February: The three owners of Zion property agree to one day sell their pieces to a nonprofit that, when formed, will turn the land into a memorial site.
March: The last of the 29 families who lived in Robles Park Village apartments built over Zion Cemetery are relocated.
June: Through an excavation, archaeologists physically confirm the existence of coffins on Zion property.