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Richard Gonzmart believes no coffins will be found on his Zion Cemetery land

“It’s a gut feeling,” says the Tampa restaurateur, even though a survey shows 126 caskets and counting on property adjacent to his.
This strip of land along the 3700 block of N Florida Ave., to the right, is owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. A century ago, it was part of Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa's first African-American burial ground. [SANTANA, LUIS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
This strip of land along the 3700 block of N Florida Ave., to the right, is owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. A century ago, it was part of Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa's first African-American burial ground. [SANTANA, LUIS | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 24, 2019
Updated Sep. 24, 2019

TAMPA — The Tampa Housing Authority moved swiftly upon learning in June that graves from long-forgotten Zion Cemetery might still lie beneath its Robles Park Village apartments.

The authority organized a consultation committee, hired archaeologists to survey its property, and began moving tenants who live where the segregation-era black cemetery once was located.

Now, the man who owns the rest of the cemetery property — Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group — said he, too, will take steps soon in response to the surprise revelation.

But Gonzmart expects his results will be different.

“I believe we will find that there are no bodies,” he said. “It’s a gut feeling.”

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

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Read how the story of Zion Cemetery has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar have discovered what they believe to be 126 caskets beneath the Housing Authority land. They expect to find many more; a map of the cemetery from 1901 shows room for more than 800.

In a special report June 23, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that Zion Cemetery disappeared from public view in the late 1920s and that an old storefront, Robles Park Village and warehouses Gonzmart now uses were built on land Zion once occupied.

The chance that only half that land contain graves, as Gonzmart suggests, “is almost zero,” said a member of the archaeological team working with the Housing Authority.

The property line that divides the cemetery land today didn’t exist when it was established in 1901, said Rebecca O’Sullivan with the Florida Public Archaeology Network. She points to a map showing casket-like shapes archaeologists have detected on the Housing Authority property— right up to the boundaries of Gonzmart’s land.

“While a metal fence divides the property above the surface today," O’Sullivan said, "beneath the surface, Zion Cemetery occupies the exact same footprint it has since 1901.”

The 1901 map shows Zion Cemetery contained 98 sections across its 2½ acres, each section big enough to accommodate as many as eight proper burials. That adds up to more than 800 graves. In addition, the map shows a potters field for burial of the indigent.

The section that now is Gonzmart’s property had room for around 450 of those proper burials plus a piece of the potter’s field.

A dotted line shows the portion of the forgotten Zion Cemetery that archaeologists have not yet surveyed. Most of it is owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. The red squares indicate caskets found with ground-penetrating radar at adjacent Robles Park Village, owned by the Tampa Housing Authority. [Cardno]

Gonzmart said that within a month, he will hire archaeologists to investigate his property and make their findings public. There is no requirement under state law that he take such steps.

Gonzmart did not know about the cemetery in 2016 when he purchased the property along the 3700 block of N Florida Ave. for $690,000.

Trucks come and go each day from the warehouses he operates on the property, but he has plans to develop a culinary school there to provide careers for people from the surrounding low-income area.

Whether or not human remains are found, he said, he will incorporate a Zion memorial into his project.

“It saddens and sickens me” that there are caskets on the Housing Authority land, Gonzmart said. “It sickens me that people didn’t respect those people. I want to honor their memories.”

Richard Gonzmart owns land on the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. that was once part of Zion Cemetery.

If remains are excavated, moving them to another cemetery is an option.

It’s an expensive process but costs could be offset by a bill sponsored by State Sen. Janet Cruz, the Tampa Democrat. The legislation would require a search for descendants of the people buried at Zion and provide them up to $7,500 each for a funeral, re-interment and a grave marker.

The Housing Authority doesn’t want to see bodies moved and would keep them in the ground, turning its portion of the Zion Cemetery land into a memorial park.

State grants might compensate Gonzmart for his land if he chooses to hand it over for a memorial.

Leroy Moore, chief operating officer with the Housing Authority, suggested that if human remains are found on Gonzmart’s property, the restaurateur consider incorporating the culinary school into a redevelopment of Robles Park Village that’s planned during the coming years.

"Our clients can be well-served having such training near one of our properties,” Moore said.

Gonzmart is not ready to make any promises before learning whether remains are found.

“We’ll deal with it then," he said. "There is a chance there are none.”

Ray Reed of Tampa, who has worked in his retirement to locate local grave sites, first tipped the Times about a forgotten African-American cemetery somewhere in the area. Since then, Reed has found death records for 800 people listing Zion Cemetery as their burial place.

Still, Reed’s earliest record is from 1910 — nine years after Zion was established.

That means there might have been more than 800 people buried there, archaeologist O’Sullivan said.

“Nine years of burials cannot be accounted for,” O’Sullivan said.

The potter’s field might have accommodated the additional burials, she said.

The number of people buried there each year declines after 1918, likely because Zion was full, she said.

It's not yet clear what became of them, but as many as 800 people were buried at Tampa's forgotten Zion Cemetery from 1910 through 1923. [Times]

Eunive Massey, who once lived next to Zion Cemetery, has told the Times she saw burials exhumed in 1933 but described a chaotic process that left human remains exposed in open graves.

"While it is morbid to think about,” O’Sullivan said, adults have 206 bones in their body.

“More than 160,680 individual human bones were and are at rest within the cemetery," she said. “Even if an attempt was made in the past to remove every burial on Mr. Gonzmart’s property, it is likely that scattered human remains were left behind.”

In addition, ground-penetrating radar might not detect bones, she said.

If human remains are discovered during construction on Gonzmart’s property, state law would require stopping work until all are located and moved elsewhere.

As a boy, Gonzmart — whose great-grandfather started the Columbia Restaurant in historic Ybor City in 1905 — attended Sacred Heart Academy near the Robles Park Village apartments. He said he was troubled by the poverty in the neighborhood.

That’s why he wants to build his culinary school in the area.

“I want to make a difference,” Gonzmart said. “I don’t believe the Lord would put me in a position to not do that.”

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