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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.
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, 2019
Updated Jan. 13, 2020

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.
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.
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: See how the story of lost cemeteries 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.
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.