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Matching memories with science is helping solve the Zion mystery

A Tampa woman saw graves exhumed in the 1930s, but archaeologists just found caskets on the property. How can both be right?

TAMPA — Eunive Massey, the 96-year-old Tampa woman who grew up next to Zion Cemetery, is sticking to her story: As a little girl in 1933, she saw men exhuming the graves from the segregation-era, all-black burial ground.

This doesn’t jibe with what archaeologists found there in August. Ground penetrating radar detected nearly 130 caskets under the ground and archaeologists expect to find hundreds more.

So, was the cemetery moved or not?

“We have no reason to doubt what Ms. Massey saw,” said Jeff Moates, who as regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network is part of the team that found the caskets. “We also have no reason to doubt what science is showing. We’re both right.”

The Tampa Bay Times first interviewed Massey in June, right after it revealed that as many as 800 people were buried along North Florida Avenue on property that’s now home to a public housing complex, warehouses and an old storefront.

In followup research using ground penetrating radar, the archaeology team has detected 127 caskets on the property so far. The Times visited again with Massey last week to see how the discovery matched her memories.

RELATED: Read how the story unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

The 2 ½-acre cemetery was founded in 1901 as what is believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground. It largely disappeared from public view by the late 1920s.

Only a narrow sandy road separated Zion Cemetery from Massey’s home on Nordica Avenue.

“Headstones were right outside my door,” she said.

She saw graves exhumed there and elsewhere across the property, she said. Her house no longer stands, but the area she described is one of the sections where archaeologists have found the presence of caskets.

And it’s different from other sections in one respect: The ground-penetrating radar also shows evidence that the dirt above the caskets has been disturbed. It’s the kind of reading they’d expect if the graves had been dug up at some point.

Working off Massey’s recollections, as relayed by the Times, archaeologist Moates now says it is “very likely” in this particular section that “bodies were removed but not the caskets or vaults.”

This image is a mashup of three layers. First, a modern-day aerial photograph showing Zion Cemetery today, with the buildings that stand on top of it. Second, a 1931 map showing three houses that once stood there and the disappearance of the label "cemetery" appearing on earlier maps. And third, red figures showing where ground penetrating radar has detected caskets beneath the ground. [ Cardno ]

Next year, the archaeologists will begin the next phase of their investigation. They call it ground truthing, digging just close enough to the caskets to learn more about them without actually moving them. They’ll focus, in part, on the area near Massey’s former home.

“We’re cautioned to expect remains or fragments of remains in the disturbed areas," Moates said.

The reason: The exhumation that Massey witnessed around 1933 was done in a haphazard way, she said, leaving bones in the sand around the graves.

“My cousin found a skull and it had gold teeth in it,” Massey said.

Still, the survey so far shows signs of ground disturbance around only about 10 percent of the caskets detected. So Moates is confident the other caskets contain human remains.

This image is a 3D laser scan of Robles Park Village showing grave-shaped objects beneath the ground in relation to buildings at the public housing complex. The single image is made from two data sources and aligns with historical maps of the former Zion Cemetery. [ Cardno ]

Massey’s recollections help pinpoint the time when Zion Cemetery disappeared.

A storefront built in 1929 on the cemetery land along North Florida Avenue hid Zion from public view. A map produced two years later shows three homes behind the storefront, but no “cemetery” label.

African-American families lived in the three homes, Massey said.

Two of the three houses were on Zion Cemetery property now owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, who hasn’t yet started searching yet for signs of graves. The third house was on land now owned by the Tampa Housing Authority, and eight undisturbed caskets have been detected there.

“The house was built right over graves,” Moates said. “Someone slowly shrunk the cemetery.”

People placed flowers on graves until the exhumation work began, Massey said. What’s more, someone kept the grass trimmed. At the time, the cemetery was owned by Henry P. Kennedy and Hewitt Walker, according to property records. They were both white.

This may explain why some graves were dug up and others weren’t, Moates said. Families who visited the remains of their loved ones might have realized the cemetery was doomed and hired someone to move them.

“It’s just a theory,” Moates said. “But that’s all we have for now — theories.”

It’s also possible that only graves with headstones were exhumed by the workers Massey saw, suggested Eric Prendergast, an archaeologist with private consultant Cardno, part of the archaeology team.

The workers might not even have known they missed some.

“We typically find that when people move cemeteries, they do an incomplete job," Prendergast said.

Massey was surprised to learn that death records discovered during the recent research show some 800 death records with Zion listed as the burial ground. That’s just about the capacity of the cemetery, judging from the original 1901 map.

“I didn’t think that many were out there,” Massey said. “The graves would have had to be really close."

She recalled open space across the cemetery where neighborhood children could play ball without damaging headstones. Maybe that’s where human remains were left behind, Prendergast said.

Still, if bodies were exhumed, what happened to them?

The most likely answer is to the large city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery that had a black section or the private all-black Memorial Park Cemetery. But there are no records at either burial ground of a mass re-interment.

Or perhaps the records of a relocation were lost. Or they we were moved to another lost cemetery.

“The place they were moved to might also have been erased or lost to time," Prendergast said. "It’s something I don’t doubt and that we all have to consider.”