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In Zion Cemetery’s lost history, a glimpse of the memorial park it could become again

Times reporting spurred action, brought change to Tampa public housing complex.
For some, the lost Zion Cemetery, here in the foreground, and the old Robles Park Village speak to the same issue: a lack of power and respect for black residents. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

By late November, life in one corner of the faded cinder-block sprawl of Robles Park Village had quieted. Families were on their way to new homes. They left behind mold-streaked walls, shuttered windows, a rusty meat smoker.

Corroded air conditioning units hummed where residents lingered in the public housing complex, a few miles north of downtown Tampa. Acid-wash jeans and a little girl’s flower-print leggings hung on a clothesline.

Soon, those families, too, would go.

These days, Clark Simmons won’t even drive by that corner of Robles, even though he’s vice president of the Resident Council. He was taught as a kid that it was wrong to step on sacred ground.

“For me, the disrespect has been enough,” he said.

But on the land that was Zion Cemetery, the historic African-American burial ground rediscovered after a nine-month search by Tampa Bay Times reporters, archaeologists’ boots sunk into the scrubby soil.

With white measuring tape, they marked narrow strips of land and pushed their radar like a lawnmower past lonely stoops. They were wrapping up the search for shapes below the damp grass: pipes, cables, sidewalks — and caskets.

Rebecca O’Sullivan and Eric Prendergast, showing a reporter around, walked to the complex’s edge and paused in a woodsy corner.

They took in Robles Park Village, where many residents are just scraping by and where Simmons estimates 90 percent are black. There was a metal fence painted red, a crumpled Strawberry Fanta, the husk of a Maruchan Instant Lunch. Beyond the shade of the live oaks, traffic rolled down North Florida Avenue.

For the archaeologists, and for Simmons, it has been impossible not to imagine what this place once was. They lose sleep to thoughts of how its dignity could be restored, and what this city owes those buried here.

***

Clark Simmons didn’t want the Times to be right when the story broke about Zion, though all his life he’d heard rumors. It was one thing to be a mildly superstitious, God-fearing man whose grandmother said of Robles, “I’m not moving to that cemetery.” It would be another thing to know.

Most days, Simmons works in the resident council office, an apartment identical to the rest except for the scraggly periwinkle flowers by the door and the banner promising kids FREE MEALS HERE! A retired nurse, Simmons now spends his time standing up for the people of Robles Park Village. Or, as his business card says, “Fighting For The Least Of These.”

He pleads with the city to handle drug dealers in corner stores. He spends hours picking up wrappers and cans. He sees the misery: Half a block away from the hanging plants on his porch is a memorial wrapped around a telephone pole for a young man who was shot dead, with shiny wilted balloons, craft-store flowers and teddy bears slumped at the base.

He knows most people in these 433 units want more. But he also feels the long arm of racism holding them down, in the gentrification of black neighborhoods, in hiring managers’ stereotypes, in hungry elementary schoolers, in unjust eviction attempts. Just recently, he managed to shield a young woman whose apartment was shot up again from being kicked out. When city officials say Robles crime is down, he says, “Where?”

Maybe, he wonders, it was all this unrest that made those buried at Zion come to light.

“Some spirit decided: ‘We’ve been down here long enough. It’s time for a change.’ ”

That the city’s black ancestors had suffered great disrespect did not come as a shock to him.

That disrespect had carried on, as he saw it, to Tampa’s most outdated public housing, the last of its kind. It carried on when politicians seemed to remember his community only when their names appeared on a ballot.

The wound was an old one as he grieved the hundreds of graves possibly under residents’ tile floors.

Still, when the archaeologists confirmed that nearly 130 caskets were there, and likely the bones of many more, Simmons began to cry.

Clark Simmons listens in August as archaeologists talk about their search for caskets left behind at what was once Zion Cemetery. ["JAMES BORCHUCK | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times]

***

Robles, with its mold and cockroaches, was already due for redevelopment as soon as next year. Now the 96 residents in the five buildings atop cemetery land could not bear to stay any longer.

“It was holy ground,” Tampa Housing Authority chief operating officer Leroy Moore told them.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” the housing authority’s president said.

When the tenants heard that one option was moving to another spot in Robles Park Village, they laughed.

“We want to get out of here,” one mother said.

As old ghost stories came alive again, Simmons and others at Robles called for a historical marker or a memorial park, some sacred reminder for the people of Zion. They’d be named as shopkeepers and longshoremen and children, as much a part of Tampa’s history as anyone else.

The Housing Authority agreed with the plan. But half of Zion is out of its control, lying underneath property owned by Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. At first, he chose to hire his own search team, so as the archaeologists from Cardno and University of South Florida walked the cracked asphalt of Robles, Gonzmart kept to himself.

Simmons felt the businessman was dragging his feet.

“What the hell!” Simmons wanted to say. “It’s hard for us to watch.”

Gonzmart has since hired Cardno.

Simmons also felt uneasy seeing the tenants disperse. Many needed extra help, whether it was financial literacy or life skills, but he didn’t feel sure they’d gotten it. And now they were out of his hands.

“There’s a storm coming, and a flood coming, and you want me to build an ark in two days,” he lamented to himself. And when the whole complex gets upgraded, he worried, would other tenants even be able to afford the shiny new rooms?

While Simmons paced and prayed, state senators and federal lawmakers pushed to find and honor disregarded graveyards like Zion. More stories were coming to light: A pauper’s cemetery underneath the campus of Tampa’s King High School. Clearwater residents remembering loved ones laid to rest in what’s now an unmarked field. A vacant lot inside another burial ground on the edge of Ybor City.

Others, too, across the country, in Deerfield Beach, New Orleans, North Carolina.

Over and over, it was mostly black men, women and children whose burial places had been erased.

***

Zion: The name kept coming up as Ray Reed sifted through death certificates last fall, but he’d never heard of it before. What was this place?

A hobbyist historian, Reed spent his retired time rifling through records to find burial grounds overlooked by time and the powers that be.

He mentioned Zion to Paul Guzzo, the Tampa Bay Times reporter who had recently profiled Reed. Guzzo wavered.

Video journalist James Borchuck insisted, “I think he's onto something.”

Experts weren’t sure. Fred Hearns, chronicler of Tampa’s African-American history, said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Finally, in the Tampa Bay History Center, a historian found the key, a scan of a map that had long since disappeared. Filed in 1901, it established Zion Cemetery.

Other maps confirmed its 2.5 acres, with a potter’s field for the poor and unknown north of the family plots.

Obsessed, and now with help from the Florida Public Archaeology Network, part of USF, the reporters pored over city directories, land deeds, old copies of the Times, genealogy sites. And tens of thousands of death records.

Zion took shape.

Tampa Bay Times reporters Paul Guzzo, left, and James Borchuck work last summer on documenting the Zion land. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Guzzo kept hoping all he’d found was evidence of the past, and that all those people had been moved.

The first Times story ran in June, tallying 382 burials there in the early 1900s.

Soon after, Reed said that actually, the number looked to be nearly double — putting Zion’s graves near full.

Only a few bodies, the team found, had been moved.

All of that would later be confirmed.

So who was left at Zion?

***

The reporters pieced together the cemetery’s history, finding that Zion was threatened even in its earliest years.

There was the Confederate veteran who claimed the land was his because he’d paid its back taxes — even though the cemetery didn’t owe any.

In ensuing years, Zion lost land, fought against bankruptcy and fended off auction. The Tampa Times called it “greatly used,” one of the city’s “most prominent” burial grounds. Still, as Tampa swelled, white suburbs crept nearer, and in 1926, a white businessman named H.P. Kennedy managed to buy the land for a single dollar. This man knew it was a cemetery, asking for a tax break on those grounds.

Yet he quickly got a permit and slapped a five-shop storefront on top.

Zion vanished from city maps.

As a little girl, neighbor Eunive Massey laid wild daisies on headstones.

But in 1933, she saw some bodies exhumed as development ramped up. Bones lay exposed, strewn in the sand. Her cousin, she remembers, came across a skull with gold teeth.

Still, Massey’s neighborhood, the historically black Robles Pond, held on — until 1951, when demolition crews drove the dirt roads.

Robles Pond had been for decades a place, north of city limits, where black families could own property and raise their children. They had lobbed lawsuits and protests at the white builders who promised to level hundreds of homes, to no avail.

The builders didn’t stop even when foundation diggers found, 15 inches down, three caskets that held the remains of children. The city promised other bodies had been moved, years back, by an old owner. If they had, no one proved it. If anyone sounded an alarm, or tried to find more graves, no records show it.

And when the 67 buildings of Robles Park Village opened, one news story said the new complex replaced a “slum," “bypassed by progress.” Not one apartment allowed African-Americans.

“How can I say it?” Simmons says now. “To the tenth power of Jim Crow, it was just that. They wanted the land, and they took it.”

***

Think of that land a century ago. Back when a white homesteader sold property to a well-known black businessman named Richard Doby, who paid $100 and later created Zion.

There in Robles Pond, black people could attend their own church and a one-room, wooden schoolhouse. They could walk downtown to jobs as bakers, masons and mule drivers. They cleaned homes and loaded bananas and cigars onto barges. These were the African-Americans descended from enslaved people, or black Seminoles and Cubans, or people who had fled plantation hell. While the Ku Klax Klan thrived, printing half-page ads in local papers, and black people weren’t allowed to step foot in city parks or beaches, this community was their own.

When it came time to bury their dead, their saloon keepers and bricklayers and still-born babies, there was Zion, with two white crosses on its sign.

Out there, by the farms and citrus groves, before the city would swallow them up, family plots were laid out in neat squares. Headstones gave each person a name and a memory.

Times files were used in this report.

Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

SEE HOW THE STORY OF LOST CEMETERIES HAS UNFOLDED IN THE TAMPA BAY TIMES

https://www.tampabay.com/topics/zion/

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