50 things to know about the Tampa Bay area’s forgotten cemeteries

To catch you up on what’s happened, here are answers to questions about all the burial grounds that have come to light in 2019.
Published Dec. 31, 2019|Updated Jan. 9, 2020

TAMPA — Barely a week has gone by during the past six months without new revelations about a forgotten cemetery in the Tampa Bay area.

It started in June with a special report in the Tampa Bay Times about the discovery of Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times.

Since then, interest has spread in finding what became of the final resting places of people who struggled during an era of segregation to make their voices heard.

Now, across the region, as many as nine forgotten cemeteries have been identified and are under investigation. In dozens of articles, photographs and videos, the ongoing story has unfolded in the Times.

To catch you up on what’s happened, here are answers to 50 commonly asked questions.

1. How did this start?

It began as many investigations do, with a tip. In September 2018, the Times wrote about efforts by cemetery researcher Ray Reed to find death records for people interred without markers in Hillsborough County’s Cemetery for All People. All People was a burial ground for the indigent dating to the early 1900s.

Reed told reporters that he had also come across death certificates for a burial ground called Zion Cemetery. What was it, he asked, and where?

The Times spent nine months investigating and confirmed the existence of the burial ground, founded in 1901 outside what was then the city of Tampa — on property where homes and businesses later were built. But there was no sign anywhere that a large number of graves from Zion had ever been relocated.

The Times’ report was published June 23. Reaction was immediate, starting with the Tampa Housing Authority — owners of part of the 2½-acre cemetery property. A section of the authority’s sprawling Robles Park Village housing complex was built there in 1951.

2. What records did you use for that initial report?

Old ones. We started with city directories from the early 1900s and came up with an address for Zion Cemetery.

Then, historians and archaeologists helped us find maps that showed a cemetery there. We searched through decades of newspaper archives and land records to piece together the history.

We also sifted through thousands of pages of online death records to put together a list of those buried at Zion and to learn if they had been moved elsewhere.

3. Where was Zion located?

Zion Cemetery encompassed 2½ acres in the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave., between Virginia and Lake avenues. From busy Florida Avenue, the land stretches east about the length of 1⅓ football fields. Today, it is home to a tow lot, warehouse space and five of the 67 buildings in Robles Park Village.

4. How many other lost cemeteries have been found since Zion?

Just one so far: The mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent, on what today is the southeast corner of the King High School campus at 6815 North 56th St. During construction of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa redevelopment downtown, archaeologists in 2017 also discovered three graves from a cemetery dating to the original settlement of Tampa at Fort Brooke. But the developers have not publicly released any information about this Estuary Cemetery.

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5. Haven’t I heard that there are more cemeteries?

Yes, and there may well be. But archaeologists have yet to confirm bodies are still there. So it remains possible that caskets were moved to another cemetery and those records are lost.

Here are other potential cemetery sites the Times has identified: A plantation burial ground on the property of the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville, the Port Tampa Cemetery for African-Americans on MacDill Air Force Base, the Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery for African-Americans on a horse ranch in Odessa, and the College Hill Cemetery for African-Americans and Cubans on an empty lot within the Italian Club Cemetery in Ybor City.

6. Wait, a cemetery might have been lost inside another cemetery?

Yes. That is a strange possibility indeed.

7. Didn’t I read about lost cemeteries in Clearwater?

Yes, you did. And maybe there are.

The two sites in Clearwater once were unnamed African-American burial grounds. One is now an empty lot on an unused school campus owned by the Pinellas County School District at Holt Avenue and Engman Street and the other is a vacant lot at 100 S. Missouri Ave. owned by a businessman.

Unlike the other cemeteries, these two were moved, some time in the 1950s. But the Clearwater NAACP is concerned that unmarked graves were left behind. So while the Clearwater cemeteries weren’t lost, some graves might have been left behind.

8. What about bodies beneath the tax collector’s property on Hillsborough Avenue?

The land was surveyed with ground penetrating radar and no signs were found that the property was ever a cemetery.

9. How many people were buried at Zion Cemetery?

The cemetery had room for 800 proper burials plus a potter’s field for the indigent. Archaeologists have confirmed that nearly 800 people were indeed buried there but they say that the number might be as high as 850.

10. How many Zion caskets have been detected so far?

One hundred ninety-nine.

11. Didn’t I read there were 127?

The story still is developing. That was the initial total, found using ground-penetrating radar during a survey in August that took in the Robles Park Village property. Archaeologists later found another 17 graves on the same property and another 55 on land that’s now a tow lot.

12. When will we have a total number for Zion?

The most accurate number awaits the results of surveys underway on former Zion Cemetery land that now is home to warehouses used by owner and restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. An announcement is expected soon. Still, an exact total is unlikely. The radar cannot detect every casket or set of human remains, even on open land. And there are buildings atop the Zion property now. Ground penetrating radar cannot look through the buildings’ floors.

13. Who was buried at Zion Cemetery?

They were the pioneering African-Americans of Tampa, a city incorporated in 1849. The men would have been laborers, primarily, and the women domestic workers. L.G. Caro was among the more prominent people buried in Zion as a founder of the Greater Bethel Baptist Church in the 1890s and as a much sought-after endorser of white political candidates.

14. How many caskets were found on the Ridgewood land?

One hundred forty-five.

15. But didn’t I read that there were more than 250?

That’s how many people may have been buried there based on death certificates. But, again, the radar cannot detect every casket.

16. Who was buried at Ridgewood?

Men, women and children whose families couldn’t afford a burial plot for them or who had no one to take up that responsibility on their behalf. They included a night watchman, a railroad worker and a woman who ran a bar during Prohibition.

17. How did Zion, Estuary and Ridgewood cemeteries get their names?

Zion is a biblical term for the promised land, popular among churches and cemeteries nationwide. Estuary was near the mouth of the Hillsborough River. It’s unclear where the Ridgewood name came from.

18. Why don’t we know the ethnicity of those buried in the Estuary Cemetery?

The owners and developers of Water Street Tampa have declined to provide details. But state records obtained by the Times show that they have met with two potential stakeholders in the cemetery — the U.S. Army and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This indicates that the dead may be connected to military service and Native Americans of the time. The state also reports the bodies were moved to another cemetery, but will not say to which one.

19. Did these cemeteries just fade away or were they deliberately erased?

Historians and archaeologists are confident that in the case of Zion, the disappearance was a deliberate act.

In 1923, Zion was listed in a Tampa newspaper article about prominent cemeteries. Six years later, in 1929, city council minutes indicated it was still there. But 1929 also was the year when construction of a storefront began on the property.

Those who lived near Keystone Cemetery in Odessa say bodies were deliberately left in the ground while signs it had been a burial ground disappeared. Reasons for the disappearance of Ridgewood and the other potential lost cemeteries or graves are still unclear.

The Estuary Cemetery, on the other hand, appears simply to have faded away as Tampa was rebuilt again and again over the centuries from a small village into a major city.

20. Could racism have played a role in what happened to Zion?

Yes. It’s likely that developers saw profit in property — however it was being used — along a growing corridor north of town and knew the black community could do nothing to stop the elimination of a cemetery there.

Today, laws protect cemeteries. To develop them requires properly and respectfully moving bodies to another burial ground.

There were no such laws when Zion disappeared. It was up to the property owners to do the right thing. Removing headstones appeared to turn the property into vacant land. And it was much cheaper than relocating bodies.

White residents had the clout at the time to ensure that their loved ones were properly relocated, should it become necessary. That’s what happened just blocks away from Zion when the Catholic Cemetery was sold for development in the 1920s.

But this was the era of segregation and the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak. Few would listen even if blacks stepped up to demand equal treatment.

21. Who owned Zion Cemetery when it disappeared?

Business partners H.P. Kennedy and Hewitt Walker owned the land.

22. Do local leaders today care about any of this?

The city of Tampa sends representatives to meetings of the Housing Authority’s monthly Zion Cemetery Archaeological Consultation Committee. Elected officials who have attended meetings include Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, City Councilman Orlando Gudes, state Sen. Janet Cruz and state Rep. Dianne Hart.

23. Why was it necessary to have a black cemetery?

Whites wanted to be separated from blacks in death as well as in life. Some public cemeteries included separate black sections fenced off from the rest of the burial ground but these sections were too small to accommodate the local African-American community. So prominent blacks established cemeteries for their community.

24. Why isn’t anyone looking for lost white cemeteries?

The search is underway. The forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery primarily had African-American burials but whites were there, too — anyone who was a pauper. College Hill is the final resting place for Cubans black and white.

Still, because African-Americans were marginalized, their cemeteries were more likely to be erased.

25. How common was it for developers to build on top of black cemeteries?

At least a dozen have been documented nationwide in recent years.

In Newburgh, N.Y., in 2017, a school was being converted into a courthouse when workers found African-American graves split by underground utility lines. A cemetery also was recently discovered beneath the Capital City Country Club golf course in Tallahassee.

26. Why are these lost cemeteries suddenly being found?

Locally, people who knew about the cemeteries or had suspicions have come forward since the story of Zion Cemetery was first published June 23 in the Tampa Bay Times. Those who have spoken with the Times said that before, they thought no one would believe their stories.

Nationally, the subject is drawing greater attention, too. The Times reported in June about a bill before Congress that would help find and preserve forgotten African-American cemeteries.

27. Why should we care?

Certainly, there are moral reasons. No one intends for a loved one to be buried on land that will be developed later. And it’s never too late to right a wrong.

28. Are there other reasons to care?

Yes. Financial ones, under the heading, “Buyer beware.”

Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart purchased his portion of the Zion land in 2016 for $690,000 and has put nearly $300,000 more into it. He operates warehouses there and had hoped one day to use it as the site of a culinary school.

That will likely not happen now. And he would not have spent the money knowing there were bodies on the land.

29. Did whoever sold Gonzmart the property know a cemetery was there?

Marc Maseman, the seller, says he did not.

Nor, they say, did those who act today on behalf of the adjacent landowner — the Tampa Housing Authority. But their predecessors did. In 1951, while building Robles Park Village on the land, the Housing Authority found three child-sized caskets there that were identified as part of Zion Cemetery. There is no indication that the Housing Authority looked for more graves before resuming work.

30. Why wouldn’t the old Housing Authority have looked for more caskets?

No one seems to know and meeting minutes from the period offer no clue. There was no law at the time requiring that the authority do so.

31. Why weren’t graves found while digging down to develop new buildings?

The three child-sized caskets were just 15 inches below the surface at the time they were unearthed. Caskets discovered since then are four to six feet deep and the foundation at Robles Park Village went no deeper than three feet. Construction workers never reached them.

32. The local NAACP has expressed anger lately that city leaders did not protect Zion. Who else was in charge back then in Tampa?

Perry Wall was mayor when the cemetery disappeared and Curtis Hixon led the city when the three caskets were uncovered in 1951.

The cemetery’s final owners were still alive in 1951, too. H.P. Kennedy was retired and Hewitt Walker was working as chief deputy tax assessor for Hillsborough County.

33. What do the graves mean for today’s owners of Zion Cemetery?

They can move the bodies to another cemetery and develop their land, a costly proposition and one the Housing Authority has no intention of pursuing.

Instead, the authority is working with state and local authorities to find grants so the authority, Gonzmart and owners of the small tow lot can be reimbursed for the cost of the land, and a memorial park established.

34. Who would manage a memorial park?

The city of Tampa doesn’t want to, but it offered to help set up a nonprofit for the project.

A Tampa man has presented another option: A nonprofit that could work with the city in a public-private partnership to manage Zion and other forgotten cemeteries. Under his proposal, the city would own the land.

35. Is there a memorial park like this anywhere?

The state of Florida provided Deerfield Beach nearly $1 million to purchase a three-acre African-American cemetery with some 300 unmarked graves plus another half-million dollars to turn the land into a memorial park.

36. What will happen to the people who live in Robles Park Village?

Five of the 67 buildings in the public housing project are on Zion Cemetery land. The residents now are being moved to other public housing available through federal Section 8 vouchers.

When the entire Robles Park Village complex is redeveloped in the coming years, the five buildings will be razed and the property beneath it will be left empty as part of the memorial park.

37. Why isn’t everyone moving out now? Isn’t it creepy living next to a cemetery?

The position of the Housing Authority is that people in many places live next to cemeteries.

Still, the authority is speeding up its plans to redevelop the aging, 35-acre public housing complex because of Zion Cemetery’s discovery. A master plan is coming in early 2020, a year earlier than projected.

The relocation of the remaining residents could begin before the end of 2020.

38. What’s going to happen to Ridgewood Cemetery on the school property?

The Hillsborough County School District is still weighing its options. The area has been fenced off and a small agricultural building will be removed.

39. What can be done to ensure Ridgewood and Zion are not lost or erased again?

The Florida Public Archaeology Network has registered Zion with the state as a historic cemetery site and a similar move is likely for Ridgewood if the school district chooses to leave the bodies there.

This designation cannot stop the properties from being developed. Future landowners can still choose to exhume the graves. But it does provide a state record that the cemeteries are there, preventing either one from being built upon unless the bodies are relocated.

40. Has the Florida Legislature done anything about this?

It’s in the works. Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, has sponsored a bill to create a task force to search for lost African-American cemeteries in Florida and to protect those at risk.

41. How does ground-penetrating radar work?

Ground-penetrating radar transmits electromagnetic-pulse energy into the ground. The signal bounces off objects, enabling analysts later to determine shapes and depths. It doesn’t work everywhere, like in buildings or in certain soils.

42. The caskets they’ve detected — do they still contain human remains?

It appears so. The radar would also have detected soil disturbance above the caskets if the bodies had been exhumed. Still, to be 100 percent certain, archaeologists will do further research at Zion Cemetery, called ground truthing. No decision has been made yet on whether the research will be conducted at the Ridgewood site, too.

43. What is ground truthing?

Archaeologists dig into the ground in a way that leaves bodies undisturbed while enabling them to verify that the coffin-shaped objects detected by radar are indeed coffins. In addition, the work can confirm that bodies were not exhumed.

44. Were any bodies removed from Zion?

Death records reviewed by the Times indicate that nine graves were relocated to other cemeteries, a few years before Zion disappeared in the late 1920s. A woman who grew up next to Zion recalls men exhuming graves there later, around 1933.

45. Is anyone trying to find descendants of those buried in the lost cemeteries?

The Times has located half a dozen Zion descendants so far, and a genealogist with the University of South Florida is leading a group of volunteers who are expanding the search. There is no such effort underway yet for people buried at Ridgewood.

46. How did these descendants react?

They were shocked that they didn’t know about ancestors buried at Zion and that they had never heard of the cemetery.

47. How could they not have known?

The prevailing opinion is that survivors of the dead chose never to speak of Zion. The reason: It was emotionally easier to shield children and grandchildren from the horror of building on top family graves.

48. What was the reaction in the room when bodies were confirmed at Zion and Ridgewood?

People cried, prayed and expressed anger at the Zion announcement in August. Reaction was subdued at the Ridgewood news two months later, as if those attending were expecting that outcome.

49. Will there be any DNA testing on those buried at Zion or Ridgewood?

No decision yet.

50. What’s the timeline now?

Archaeologists will begin ground truthing at Zion after all the people living in the five Robles Park Village buildings have been relocated. That could come as early as February.

MacDill Air Force Base will begin its search for lost Port Tampa Cemetery in January. The Clearwater NAACP hopes that the two sites there will be surveyed in early 2020. No surveying of the other potential cemeteries has been announced yet.

Related: How the Tampa Bay Times discovered lost black cemeteries