TAMPA — In the 1920s, the city of Tampa wrongly taxed Zion Cemetery and, when the Black owners did not pay, reverted ownership of the Black burial ground to the white family who homesteaded the land decades earlier.
The homesteaders sold the cemetery and tax debt to a white developer.
The city then waived the taxes, approved permits to build on the cemetery land and looked the other way when the headstones were removed but the bodies were not.
Today, it would take at least $8 million to right those wrongs.
That is what the Zion Preservation and Maintenance Society nonprofit estimates it will cost to turn the site into a memorial for the erased cemetery.
But that price tag is dependent on property owners donating their portions of the 2.5 acres of Zion that archaeologists say could contain as many as 1,000 graves dating to the early 1900s.
At least one of the owners is not willing to do that.
“I will do a land swap if they offer me land that is zoned the same way and is the same size,” said Dennis Creech, whose sixth-of-an-acre tow lot includes a basketball court-sized portion of Zion. “The land is priceless to me. It’s not easy to find the right land for my business.”
The Zion land that spreads across the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. is split among three owners.
The Tampa Housing Authority, which receives federal funds, agreed to donate their portion, which makes up just under half of the Zion property and is home to five vacant Robles Park Village apartment buildings.
When the Housing Authority built Robles Park in 1951, three caskets were unearthed. The Housing Authority continued construction without investigating further.
Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart also owns nearly half of the Zion property. He uses it for warehouse space.
The Times emailed two of Gonzmart’s spokespeople and his Columbia Restaurant Group attorney and left a voicemail for one spokesperson. They acknowledged receipt of the messages but have yet to comment.
Gonzmart and Creech were unaware the land was ever home to a cemetery when they purchased their properties in 2016.
“We should seek the donation of this property since it has confirmed graves, which is detrimental to valuing the site for any use other than a public memorial,” reads the cost breakdown sheet provided to the Times by the maintenance society that formed to create the memorial.
“We may be able to value the site based on its original purchase price by the owner and extend a charitable contribution letter to the owner for tax purposes.”
Creech’s land is made up of two parcels. He is being asked to donate the one that is part of Zion.
For the parcel that is not part of Zion, he would be paid $80,000, which, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, is what both parcels cost him.
“That is not even close to its worth,” Creech said. “Maybe as land that’s its worth, but business-wise it is worth a lot more.”
A few years ago, Creech said, someone offered $350,000 for the property.
Gonzmart purchased his land for $690,000, according to the property appraiser’s website.
The Zion memorial cost breakdown includes $500,000 to demolish structures built over graves, $5 million to develop the memorial park, and nearly $2 million to erect a genealogy research center on Creech’s property that is not part of the cemetery.
The nonprofit has raised $150,000 via $50,000 donations from the city, Hillsborough County and the state. They will seek to raise the rest through grants and private donations.
Zion was a segregation-era cemetery that was erased from public view during the 1920s and 1930s.
Then, in 2019, the Times published a report questioning if the bodies were still there. A month later, archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to confirm that they were.
“It’s awful that anything like this happened,” Creech said. “I wish I could just walk away from the property. But that’s just not possible. I have a business to run.”