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As ghost stories spread, plans take shape for relocating nearly 100 Robles Park tenants

Part of the public housing project sits atop the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. Finding one body would trigger the move.
Tenant representative Reva Iman said people living at Robles Park Village are eager to move out no matter what the reason. Relocation may come sooner rather than later as archaeologists scan the property to see whether bodies were left behind in the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times] [JAMES BORCHUCK | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 16
Updated Aug. 28

TAMPA — At Robles Park Village, they tell ghost stories.

“People saying they see spirits walking through their homes,” said Reva Iman, president of the Tenant Council at the 66-year-old public housing complex.

Lately, more people are reporting things that go bump in the night and even skeptics are wondering if the tales are true, Iman said.

The reason, she said, is a recent Tampa Bay Times report revealing that five of the 67 buildings in Robles Park Village sit on top of what once was Zion Cemetery — an early 1900s burial ground for African-Americans that disappeared from memory through the years.

No one knows whether bodies buried there were moved. Plans once called for as many as 800 graves and the Times discovered 382 Zion death certificates in its research.

“People are scared,” Iman said. “No one wants to live on a cemetery.”

The owner of the complex, the Tampa Housing Authority, plans to tear down the place down some day, so relocation is coming either way. Finding a body would hasten the process.

RELATED STORY: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

If human remains are found during an archaeological search of the property, begun earlier this month, the Housing Authority would begin the process of relocating the 96 people living in the five buildings within a month or so, said Leroy Moore, chief operating officer.

Florida Public Archaeology Network regional director Jeff Moates uses ground penetrating radar to survey the western part of Robles Park Village where Zion Cemetery was once located. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times] [JAMES BORCHUCK | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]

Archaeologists hope to have an answer by the end of October.

Finding just one casket would amount to “proof all the bodies were not moved," Moore said. “We will consider the site an active cemetery.”

Moore said the Housing Authority will not disturb any human remains.

"We want to respect that resting place and rid it of the improvements which frankly never should have been placed there, if indeed any bodies are still there. "

The tenants deserve better, too, he said.

Built in 1901 in the era of segregation, Zion was the first all-black cemetery known to have been established in Tampa.

When you overlay the original map of the cemetery on top of a current map, it shows that the five Robles Park Village buildings occupy the western side of the burial ground, in the 200 block of East Stratford and East Kentucky avenues at East Moore Street.

This composite created by Rebecca O'Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida shows the location of Zion Cemetery from a 1901 plat map over a photo of the same area today. [Florida Public Archaeology Network] [REBECCA O'SULLIVAN | Florida Public Archaeology Netwo]

Those forced to move could choose between a different public housing complex and homes available through federal Section 8 vouchers.

The process would be similar to the recent relocation of people living in North Boulevard Homes, a West Tampa public housing complex of about 820 apartments that was torn down to make way for the city’s West River Redevelopment Plan.

A 2018 analysis by the Times found that the Housing Authority spent an average of $1,200 per resident to move people from North Boulevard Homes.

The 2 1/2 acres occupied by Zion Cemetery is split today between Robles Park Village and warehouse property along 3700 N Florida Ave. owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart.

Using ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists with the firm Cardno have completed the scan of the Robles Park portion. Gonzmart said he still is researching the history of his property.

Cardno is analyzing its data to determine whether anomalies it found are graves.

But its report on what ground-penetrating radar turned up might prove inconclusive, said Eric Prendergast, Cardno’s principal project investigator.

What looks like a grave could be discarded construction concrete or something else. Or a grave might already have been exhumed.

Eunive Massey, 96, grew up next to Zion and has told the Times she saw some bodies being removed around 1933. But she described the process as disorganized, with graves left uncovered for a time and bodies exposed.

Massey’s memories, archaeologists say, boost the odds that they’ll find human remains.

To learn more about anomalies they find, archaeologists must dig down as close as possible without disturbing a possible grave.

Once the Housing Authority gives the green light, Prendergast said, this process is expected to take five weeks or more.

They might find some graves but miss others, said Rebecca O’Sullivan of the University of South Florida’s Florida Public Archaeology Network. The network is working with Cardno on the Zion project.

“We can’t see under the buildings, for example,” O’Sullivan said.

Iman, the Tenant Council member, said some tenants are eager for human remains to be found so they can move from the aging projects. Robles Park Village is home to 1,118 people living in 483 units.

At the very least, some hope, a discovery would speed up long-term plans to tear down and rebuild public housing at the site.

“I will push very hard for that,” Iman said.

Health risks such as mold and cockroach infestation have been found during inspections of the complex by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds it.

The Housing Authority has a handle on the problem, Iman said, but tenants are hoping for more modern lodgings with central heat and air conditioning.

Moore called Robles Park Village the last of the “traditional obsolete public housing developments requiring redevelopment.”

The Housing Authority hoped to start next year on the process of replacing the complex, Moore said, but the discovery of Zion Cemetery "may trigger a change to that timeline, potentially more expedited.”

The area where Zion once was located will be turned into a memorial park even if no human remains are found. A wall might include the names of people once buried there.

The Times found the whereabouts of only 13 people among the 382 whose death certificates listed Zion Cemetery as a burial place. Prompted by the Times report, a cemetery historian conducted his own research and claims to have found 747 Zion death certificates.

Remains from three of those 13 people are in the city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery and seven were moved to private Memorial Park Cemetery.

When work began on Robles Park Village in 1951, another three caskets were discovered but there is no mention in housing authority minutes about any investigation before the work proceeded.

“There is hysteria now because no one could be bothered back then to check for more graves,” said Clark Simmons, vice president of the Robles Park Village Tenants Council.

Simmons recalled that one tenant, now deceased, talked about the ghost of a little girl crying in her house — one of the five on top the Zion Cemetery land.

“A lot of us overlooked the story,” Simmons said. “Now, we’re not so sure.”

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