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Search for story of Zion Cemetery shifts from graves to family records

The Florida Genealogical Society is trying to find and interview descendants of 450 people laid to rest at the forgotten burial ground.

TAMPA — Finding graves at Zion Cemetery is just one way researchers hope to tell the story of the forgotten African-American burial ground.

Work also is underway to find genealogical records that will help identify and interview descendants of those buried at Zion.

Tampa-based Florida Genealogical Society is heading up the effort.

"These people were intentionally erased,” said University of South Florida genealogist Drew Smith, who leads a five-member team of volunteers. "We want to undo that damage to some degree by making them known again.”

Related: What we know about those buried at Tampa’s forgotten Zion Cemetery

Established in 1901, Zion was believed to be Tampa’s first all-black burial ground and the final resting place for more than 800 people. It disappeared as buildings were constructed there starting in the late 1920s.

In June, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the remains were likely never moved. An archaeological search confirmed it in August. Archaeologists likely will finish their work in the coming weeks, once restaurateur Richard Gonzmart announces whether there are caskets on his half of the 2½-acre Zion footprint along North Florida Avenue near Lake Avenue.

Drew Smith is a USF librarian and frequent speaker on genealogy. He is spearheading the effort to find descendants of those buried at the forgotten Zion Cemetery in Tampa.
Drew Smith is a USF librarian and frequent speaker on genealogy. He is spearheading the effort to find descendants of those buried at the forgotten Zion Cemetery in Tampa. [ TIMES FILES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Related: See how the story of Zion Cemetery has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Among those left behind was Laura Allen, who died in 1915.

Vicki Entreken of the Florida Genealogical Society learned through a records search that Allen’s granddaughter is Tampa’s Ruth Ayala.

Born nearly 20 years after the death of her her paternal grandmother Allen, Ayala was surprised to learn her family was connected to Zion Cemetery.

Her father James Allen rarely spoke of his mother and, before the coverage in the Times, Ayala like most of Tampa had never heard of Zion.

Ayala thinks she knows why.

The cemetery likely disappeared because it was a burial ground for people considered second-class citizens at the time, and "my dad didn’t talk about racism and stuff like that,” Ayala said. “We just accepted it like it was. What good did it do to talk about?”

Still, Ayala looks forward to one day visiting the Zion Cemetery memorial park that advocates hope to establish there. Genealogist Entreken helped turn a new page of history for her.

“I am appreciative that she reached out to me,” Ayala said. “Now, my grandmother can rest in peace.”

Laura Allen's death certificate.
[FamilySearch.org]
Laura Allen's death certificate. [FamilySearch.org] [ FAMILYSEARCH.ORG ]

At least 763 were buried at Zion Cemetery, Rebecca O’Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network has certified. But there could be as many as 850.

For now, the Florida Genealogical Society is working with the 450 death certificates they have in hand.

Smith of USF cited Abraham Broxie as an example of the paths their investigation takes.

Related: Their ancestors were forgotten as Zion Cemetery faded from view. Now, they want answers.

Broxie died and was buried in Zion in 1915. Henrietta Broxie was listed as “informant” on his death certificate and Smith learned through a marriage record search that she was Broxie’s wife.

A census record from 1900 lists their two daughters as Lottie and Julia Broxie. Marital records later indicate Lottie wed Perry James and Julia, Charles Philo.

The 1930 census says that Perry and Lottie James had a daughter named Henrietta. In 1950, Norman Cottman wed Henrietta Broxie in Polk County, again, based on marital records.

Smith tracked Henrietta Cottman through the Social Security Applications and Claims Index. The records show she died in California in 1998.

“She was identified as Henrietta Christine Battles,” Smith said. “So, I presume she remarried at some point. But I haven’t found an obituary yet and don’t know if she had any children with either husband.”

Abraham Broxie's death certificate
[FamilySearch.org]
Abraham Broxie's death certificate [FamilySearch.org] [ FamilySearch.org ]

Still, even if Smith hits a dead end on the Broxie investigation, it has been a fruitful one, he said.

Broxie’s handwritten name on his death certificate looks more like Brokie, so that is how genealogy sites list him.

Smith discovered the correct spelling was Broxie and a search through digital news archives using that name shed light on Broxie’s life.

The Tampa Tribune article on Broxie’s death referred to him as a respected pioneering resident who delivered goods with a horse and wagon.

“Broxie by his industry and courtesy won the regard of many whites,” the article reads, “and was held in high esteem by his own race.”

Said Smith, “That’s why we are doing this. These were real people with stories. Let’s tell them all."

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