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Church service reveals broad-based efforts to memorialize Zion Cemetery

First Mt. Carmel AME sets up scholarship fund, city pledges legal help, lawmakers pursue money to turn the property into a memorial park.
Published Sep. 28
Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — Byron Pressley is spiritual leader of a small congregation as pastor at First Mt. Carmel AME Church.

But Pressley sees his flock as much larger than his three dozen parishioners.

His church has historic ties to Zion Cemetery, the segregation-era black burial ground recently discovered beneath the Robles Park Village public housing complex, where some 800 people may have been buried.

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

Pressley feels a responsibility for those forgotten souls, and more urgently, for people whose anger is rising at the realization that Zion may have been deliberately erased from the community’s consciousness.

The first step, he said, is to focus on the future, on what can be done to honor the dead.

“Let’s move forward," Pressley said. “Let’s work to remember them always.”

To begin the healing process, Pressley presided over a memorial service at his church Saturday afternoon.

More than 50 people, elected officials as well as parishioners, sat in the wooden pews lining the spare, 2,300-square-foot church at 4406 N. 26th St.

They shouted “Hallelujah” in response to prayers, swayed in rhythm to powerful hymns, and promised to keep alive the memories of Zion Cemetery and those buried there.

To that end, the church will establish a Zion Cemetery college scholarship fund, Pressley told the Tampa Bay Times.

Tampa mayor Jane Castor addresses the congregation at 1st. Mt. Carmel AME Church in Tampa Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 during a service to remember the lost souls of Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

And Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who attended the service, told the Times the city will provide legal services for any group that’s formed to support maintenance of a memorial park on the Zion site if the modern-day owners choose to establish one.

The city will also work with the state to find grants for a memorial park "and with the community stakeholders to ensure that the grave sites of our ancestors are restored, honored and respectfully marked,” Castor said from the pulpit Saturday.

The Tampa Housing Authority owns half the 2½ acres of land along the 3700 block of North Florida Avenue once occupied by the cemetery and has pledged to pursue the idea of a memorial park.

Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart owns the other half and said he will decide soon how he’ll respond once archaeologists determine whether there are bodies beneath his land.

Nearly 130 coffins have been detected already under the Housing Authority property.

State Sen. Janet Cruz also attended the service Saturday, explaining the intent of Zion legislation she has filed. Her bill would provide money to find descendants of those buried at Zion and to move the bodies if the descendants so choose. Now, Cruz said, she supports leaving the bodies there and will adjust her bill.

“They should be allowed to rest in peace,” the Tampa Democrat said.

State Rep. Diane Hart, whose district includes Zion, as well as state Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, both Democrats, vowed at the service to secure state funding for a memorial park.

“Who is going to tell the story of their plight?” Rouson said. “It falls upon us to do this.”

Established in 1901, Zion had room for some 800 proper burials plus a potter’s field for the indigent and unknown. Archaeologists believe the cemetery was likely at capacity when it disappeared nearly a century ago.

In a special report June 23, the Times revealed that Zion vanished from public view in the late 1920s and that an old storefront, Robles Park Village and warehouses were later built on the land.

Last month, following up on the Times report, archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar discovered the caskets beneath a corner of Robles Park Village.

Some wonder how and why the cemetery’s owners could have left caskets in the ground and allowed construction on top of them. Others question why the families of those buried at Zion allowed that to happen.

“We need to stop focusing on finger pointing and focus on letting the forgotten know that we will always remember them,” Pastor Pressley told the Times. “My goal is to bring peace.”

At the close of the Saturday service, those in attendance placed flowers around the pulpit in memory of those buried at Zion Cemetery.

The Rev. Jimmy Johnson, presiding elder of the Lake District of AME Churches, had a message for anyone who hears the Zion story and asks, “So what?”

“Because black lives matter,” he answered, to cheers from the crowd, “even when they are sleeping in graves.”

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