1. News
  2. /
  3. Hillsborough

Archaeologists find more graves at site of the forgotten Zion Cemetery

The remaining half of the all-black burial ground might be scanned next month.
A dotted line shows the portion of former Zion Cemetery land that archaeologists have not yet surveyed. According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's website, most of that property within the dotted lines is owned by Richard Gonzmart. [Cardno]
Published Nov. 21

TAMPA — Archaeologists who discovered 127 coffins from forgotten Zion Cemetery under Robles Park Village returned to the housing project earlier in the month to continue their work.

Their ground penetrating radar found another 17 coffins within the footprint of the segregation-era African-American cemetery, bringing the total to 144, said Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno, the private archaeology firm hired by the Tampa Housing Authority.

By the end of the year, researchers expect to know whether there are graves all across the 2½ acre cemetery site, about half of it owned by the Housing Authority and another half owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart.

Gonzmart has hired a Jacksonville archaeology firm to scan his property for coffins, possibly as soon next month, according to Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP.

A Zion Cemetery committee was told that restaurateur Richard Gonzmart has hired a Jacksonville company to search for graves on property he owns along North Florida Avenue.

“That’s what he told me,” Lewis said. “He said he is going to do what is right.”

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Jeff Shannon, attorney for Gonzmart’s Columbia Restaurant Group, did not address Lewis’ claim.

“The Columbia Restaurant Group continues to move deliberately to research if there’s an issue on its property,” Shannon wrote. “As you can appreciate, its far more important to our company to get correct information than fast information.”

Lewis made her announcement at Thursday’s meeting of the Zion Cemetery Archaeological Consultation Committee.

The news about Gonzmart surprised Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority. Less than two weeks ago, Moore said, the Housing Authority told Gonzmart it would pay for Cardno to scan his land.

“I did not hear back,” Moore said.

Members of the Zion Committee have been frustrated that Gonzmart has not yet had his land surveyed.

The Hillsborough School District, they noted, went looking for and found the forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery on King High School’s property a month after learning it could be there.

RELATED STORY: Radar finds 145 graves buried beneath King High School in Tampa

“I’m angry that there is procrastination,” said Clark Simmons, vice president of the Robles Park Village Tenant Council. "We all know there is a cemetery there. What is Gonzmart waiting for?

The Times first reported in June that caskets might have been left behind.

Gonzmart previously told the Times that he did not believe caskets were on his property but would still hire archaeologists.

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

Dennis Creech, whose Sunstate Wrecker Services towing lot includes a Zion parcel the size of a basketball court, took the Housing Authority up on its offer to pay for a Cardno survey on his land.

So far, Moore said, the Housing Authority has invested $97,500 in its search of the former Zion Cemetery.

Dennis Creech, owner of Sunstate Wrecker Services, left, and general manager Tony Huffman, right, have agreed to let the Tampa Housing Authority fund a search for graves on their property. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Cardno will roll ground penetrating radar across Creech’s property on Dec. 2 and 3, with results by the end of December. Creech’s piece of Zion borders both the Housing Authority and Gonzmart property.

If there are coffins on Creech’s land, it’s certain there will be coffins on Gonzmart’s property too, said Jeff Moates, who as regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology has been working with Cardno on the Zion investigation.

“The property lines we see today did not exist when Zion was a cemetery,” Moates said. “It was one parcel used as a cemetery. They wouldn’t have graves everywhere but on the land Gonzmart would later own.”

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

Zion Cemetery was established in 1901. A map filed with Hillsborough County that year shows it spreading across the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave., except for a block cut out on the corner of Virginia Avenue for a church.

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. [REBECCA O'SULLIVAN | Florida Public Archaeology Network]

Zion disappeared from public view in 1929. Some 800 people were buried there and archaeologists expect to learn that nearly all the caskets are still there.

Five of the 67 buildings that make up the Robes Park complex are on Zion Cemetery land. The entire complex will be demolished for redevelopment in the coming years. A Zion memorial park will be created.

The Housing Authority began the relocation process for the 29 families living in those five buildings immediately after confirming there were graves there. So far, the authority’s Moore said, 12 families have moved and another was evicted for compliance issues that predate the discovery of Zion.

Moore expects the remaining families to be relocated by the end of January.


  1. Jamie Harden of Creative Sign Designs and Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place discuss priorities for the Tampa Bay Chamber for the coming year. Harden is the outgoing chairman of the chamber. Ferenc is the incoming chairwoman. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
    Leadership of the organization, formerly the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, also says it could have handled its recent name change better.
  2. A grave marker in Tampa's Oaklawn Cemetery for a lynching victim.
A group of local elected officials, historians, pastors and civil rights leaders want a historic marker memorializing all the county’s lynching victims. Paul Guzzo
    “A good community does not run from its history,” said Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, who supports a memorial.
  3. Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller is term-limited in his District 3 seat. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times
    The two best-known candidates are Frank Reddick and Tom Scott. But civic activist Gwen Myers has had a successful fundraising start, and Sky White has support in the local Democratic Party’s...
  4. Philip S. D'Elia, president, Pasadena Jewelers, whose family has been in the jewelry business in Tampa Bay since the 1930's, is retiring and will close his store at 6856 Gulfport Blvd. S, South Pasadena, on Dec. 24. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The South Pasadena store traces its origins to Ybor City more than eight decades ago.
  5. Jocelyn Lester, 54, left, of Tampa chops up garlic while working on her salsa recipe during Chef Rick Ceglio, right, culinary class at the Italian Club in the Ybor City. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Feeding Tampa Bay’s job training program aims to help reduce barriers to entry in the workforce
  6. Yesterday• Hillsborough
    Lynn Cristina is a Wesley Chapel momma with two girls and works full time as a marketing manager. Courtesy of Lynn Cristina
    After getting totally sucked into the commercialization of Santa and his Elves, I did something about it.
  7. Work nears completion Wednesday on a common area inside the new USF Health building that will serve as a centerpiece of the Water Street Tampa development in downtown. The 13-story tower is set to open in January. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The long-anticipated building, part of Water Street Tampa, will welcome students on Jan. 13.
  8. The Cross-Bay Ferry cruises along the Vinoy Yacht Basin as it heads toward Tampa. The Vinoy condominiums can be seen in the background. The city hopes to attract more vessels for entertainment and tourism to the downtown waterfront. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Most of the increase is tied to an additional round-trip sailing on Sundays.
  9. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman is spearheading anti-human trafficking efforts. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
    The new commission is the latest in a string of initiatives aimed at snuffing out human trafficking ahead of upcoming events like WrestleMania in April and the Super Bowl in 2021.
  10. Ray Reed closes the gates to the Cemetery for All People in Tampa. The county's poorest once were buried on the property along North 22nd St. 
    Does an old black and white photo show grave markers were there? Or is it a fence?