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A community, not just Zion Cemetery, disappeared to build homes for whites

Robles Pond was demolished to make way for whites-only housing projects.

TAMPA — Demolition crews came for the African-American neighborhood of Robles Pond in 1951.

People living there had tried to save it, pleading with the Tampa Housing Authority and filing lawsuits. But their efforts failed and Robles Pond, a humble community of about 45 acres linked by sandy roads, was replaced with Robles Park Village — a new public housing complex of 67 buildings for whites only.

Decades earlier, the ripples of racism had already begun spreading through Robles Pond.

Zion Cemetery, a 2½ acre corner of the neighborhood that is believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground, faded from public view by the late twenties. Zion had room for some 800 graves and the story of its disappearance has unfolded this year in the Tampa Bay Times. The Housing Authority followed up with a survey confirming that bodies were left behind as buildings went up.

Now, said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, "We need to learn about this African-American neighborhood wiped out in the name of gentrification. It is part of our story.”

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

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

An artist's rendering shows Robles Park Village before it opened as an all-white public housing complex in 1954. The 67 buildings that make up the complex replaced the African-American community of Robles Pond. [Times files]

Robles Pond was established some time in the late 1800s, in area outside the city limits that was seen as a comfortable distance from white population centers.

“African Americans were a marginalized group displaced from the South Tampa and downtown areas,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center.said. “Marginalized groups generally occupied spaces that were less valuable.”

The “pond” in Robles Pond lies about a tenth of a mile south of what would become the neighborhood measuring less than half-mile square. Eunive Massey, born and raised there, said the rough boundaries were Florida Avenue east to Central Avenue, and Virginia Avenue north Lake Avenue.

In 1894, African-American developer and Hyde Park resident Richard Doby purchased property along the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. in the Robles Pond neighborhood. A year later, according to news archives, Robles Pond School occupied the site and passed inspection. The wooden building doubled as a church for First Mt. Carmel AME.

In 1901, Doby established Zion Cemetery.

Hillsborough County Clerk Zion Cemetery took up about 2 1/2 acres of Robles Pond, an African-American community of some 40 acres that was demolished for an all-white Tampa public housing project in the 1950s. [HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY CLERK'S OFFI | Hillsborough County Clerk's offi]

Like other areas at the edge of Hillsborough County’s population centers, Robles Pond could be a lawless place. News archives detailed public shootouts and illegal gambling games, even at Mt. Carmel church.

Still, the neighborhood had “well-kept houses scattered around in a sort of village style, and a great sand lot where li’l dusky fellers play,” said a 1925 Tampa Times article.

By then, the community had been brought inside the city limits. Tampa’s urban core was expanding, Kite-Powell said. “As white Tampa began to grow, it infringed upon established African American communities.”

A 1927 report issued by the Tampa Urban league says Robles Pond had a population of 315. It “is one of the oldest Negro neighborhoods in Tampa," the report said. "The Negroes lived in this area first, but it has been surrounded by Whites.”

The report was published just before white developers purchased Zion Cemetery in the 1920s and built a storefront on the portion fronting Florida Avenue.

Eunive Massey, now 96, was born in 1923.

Robles Pond was no slum, as city records called it, but a supportive neighborhood for growing up, said Eunice Massey, 96. Massey remembers white friends giving her Christmas presents one year when she didn't get any. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Roads within the neighborhood were sand, she recalled. But Central Avenue at the eastern edge was paved, so she and others went roller skating there. Kids played at the Robles Pond baseball diamond, where travelling Negro League teams practiced.

In 1933, Massey saw bodies exhumed at Zion Cemetery. But the process she described was chaotic, with graves left open as children played among them.

So far, the Housing Authority survey has revealed 127 coffins were left behind there. Archaeologists doing the work say there could be hundreds more.

This image is a 3D laser scan of Robles Park Village showing subsurface results in relation to the buildings. The red and/or blue rectangles represent buried objects in the shape of graves superimposed on the 3D imagery. These results are from two different data sources and they align with historical maps of the former Zion Cemetery. Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Tampa, FL. [Cardno]

Robles Pond School was moved to another site in the neighborhood, at Lake Avenue and Jefferson Street, and Massey attended school there. Two rooms accommodated first through fourth grades, she said. Older children walked to Harlem Academy School in downtown Tampa.

Mt. Carmel church also moved to another Robles Pond site, at Florida and Lake avenues.

Robles Pond had another house of worship, too — Zion Church, where the door was always unlocked so people could come in and play the piano whenever they wished. Children popped in because the minister, a woman, would hand out peppermint sticks.

Massey recalled that a white man in a cowboy hat would ride into the neighborhood on horseback to collect rent. She doesn’t remember his name.

“We called him Red Robles,” she said. “We would run from him because we were afraid of the horse.”

A 1938 aerial view of the Robles Pond neighborhood. The Tampa Bay Times added the names of the streets and labelled the location of Zion Cemetery that by then had the headstones removed but not all the caskets. [Florida Public Archaeology Network]

Homes had outhouses, water pumps and kerosene lamps, Massey recalled. Retail businesses were all owned by whites. Her brother worked at Blue Moon Poultry on Florida Avenue, where customers watched live chickens beheaded then dropped in a tub to rattle about.

Other businesses in or adjacent to Robles Pond included Henry West Hardware, Clark’s Drugstore, the Black & White Cafe, Robert’s Shoe Store and a movie theater on the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“I saw King Kong there, and Shirley Temple,” Massey said. As African-Americans, she said, “We could only sit in the balcony.”

Still, Massey experienced little in the way of racism.

“I’ll never forget Kitty and Louise Fisher,” she said, recalling white friends who lived just outside Robles Pond. “They were the sweetest little girls.”

One Christmas, when Massey didn’t receive any presents, the girls gave her some of theirs.

The owners of the Blue Moon sent Massey’s brother home with free chicken to help support her widowed mother of nine. Nuns at the whites-only Sacred Heart Academy just outside Robles Pond provided free cafeteria meals to Robles Pond kids.

Robles Pond was targeted as a location for white public housing projects during a Housing Authority meeting on May 17, 1950, according to meeting minutes.

“They needed a big piece of land close to downtown to build a large government development,” Kite-Powell said. “So, they looked to take a community that was powerless or had less influence."

Massey estimated that around 200 families lived in Robles Pond at the time.

Minutes from later Housing Authority meetings describe Robles Pond residents seeking to stop the takeover of the property through eminent domain. "A letter from several Negroes,” has been received, read minutes from June 20, 1951, "protesting the construction” of Robles Park Village at Robles Pond.

But there is no indication from the records of “consideration or referral to staff to follow up,” said Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority today. Moore called the “casual dismissive” attitude ”disrespectful.”

The Housing Authority at the time did not even “report on their names or any other identifying info other than Negroes," he said. The agency was “not at all considerate of the concerns.”

Mt. Carmel and other interests tried to save the land via the courts, according legal notices published in newspapers. Eventually, the church moved to 4406 N 26th St., where it still is located.

Three caskets from Zion Cemetery were accidentally dug up during construction of Robles Park Village. But there is no indication that anyone searched for more before work continued. This is a clipping from the Tampa Daily Times dated Nov. 16, 1951 which stated that several unmarked graves were mistakingly dug up during the construction of Robles Park Village in Tampa. The article accompanying this photograph states that the bodies were part of Zion Cemetery and that they were supposed to be moved in 1925. [TAMPA DAILY TIMES | Daily Times]

The white-owned retail shops on Florida Avenue were among the few Robles Pond structures still standing when the new Robles Park Village was dedicated October 31, 1954. News coverage of the event said the projects replaced a “slum" that had been “bypassed by progress.”

Today, the city of Tampa’s outward march has moved far beyond Robles Park Village and the housing complex — 67 buildings, home to about 1,120 people — is inhabited largely by African-Americans. It has outlived its usefulness. Plans to redevelop it have been hastened by the discovery of Zion’s graves.

Robles Pond might have been humble, Massey said, but she recalls it as an ideal place for growing up.

“We all hated to leave,” she said. "If I had to build a home, that’s where I would be.”