TAMPA — I often think about L.G. Caro, one of Tampa’s pioneering Black leaders.
I’m probably the only person with Caro’s name seared into their memory and might be one of the few who even knows who he is.
And, I wonder, if Caro was buried in downtown Tampa’s 170-year-old Oaklawn Cemetery among pioneering white residents such as former mayors John P. Wall and James McKay Sr., would his burial plot like theirs be a pilgrimage for local history buffs? Would people know his name?
Instead, Caro was buried in Zion Cemetery, the Black burial ground that was erased and developed over beginning in 1929 without the bodies being removed.
Like the cemetery was until it was recently rediscovered, Caro — one of Tampa’s early Black leaders who founded a historic church and was a coveted endorsement for white politicians — was then erased from history.
For two years, I have investigated the mystery of Zion Cemetery for the Tampa Bay Times. I’ve tried to answer the questions about its past.
But there is one that might be unanswerable: How did this happen?
It keeps me up at night.
Historians point to racism, but also say it’s not that black and white.
The white developers who built over the cemetery didn’t go looking for a Black cemetery to destroy, historians say. Instead, they likely saw valuable land on the outskirts of downtown. Moving hundreds of bodies was costly, so they decided against it.
Historians say developers might have been willing to do the same to a white cemetery.
But white residents could fight such desecration.
For instance, Zion’s neighboring Catholic Cemetery — located where the vacant Sacred Heart Academy is today — was moved to Myrtle Hill Cemetery in 1926 so the property could be developed.
Newspaper accounts tell of public meetings where those with family buried in Catholic Cemetery dissected every aspect of the planned relocation to ensure it was performed respectfully.
Black residents, historians say, had no such power during that era.
The phrase historians have often repeated to me is, “They had no voice.”
Still, I wonder, did they try?
Did they speak up? Did they fight for the cemetery and no one wrote about it?
If anyone buried in Zion should have had masses of people willing to fight to save their burial plot, it was Caro, who died in 1916.
He was a leader in the local Black Masonic organization, helped found Bethel Baptist Church that still exists and, as a minister, was known for performing more Black weddings than anyone else in the city.
Did not one Mason, church member or couple he married feel they had the power to save Caro’s burial plot?
Were they too afraid to say anything during an era when lynchings occurred and the Ku Klux Klan operated in the open?
Did someone speak out only to be silenced?
Neither newspaper archives nor Tampa City Council minutes mention such a fight.
But in 1929, newspapers and city officials looked the other way as storefronts were built on Zion. So it seems doubtful the battle to save Zion would have been documented.
But how could not one white leader stand up for Caro’s burial plot?
His endorsements of white politicians carried so much weight that they were published in the newspapers. Did not one of those elected officials think they owed it to Caro to say something? Were they too afraid?
Tears were shed in August 2019 when archaeologists announced to a roomful of people in a Tampa Housing Authority conference room that hundreds of bodies from Zion Cemetery were underneath five apartment buildings, warehouses and a tow lot spreading across the 3700 block of N Florida Avenue.
Most in that room were Black and said they understood what it is like to be marginalized.
They wept for those in the graves, they wept for the families who could only watch as their loved were built over, and they promised to do all they could to make it right.
Someday, the Zion land will be cleared of structures and turned into a memorial park. A marker will list the 769 known to be buried there.
While they wait, the Housing Authority has fenced off their piece of the property.
That fence has a decorative screen that lists Zion’s burials.
Among the most prominent names on display: L.G. Caro.
It’s a start.