TAMPA — The search for graves at forgotten Zion Cemetery is complete and another 115 have been detected, all on warehouse property now owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart.
Gonzmart made the announcement today in a news release following a survey of his land conducted by archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar.
Established in 1901, Zion is believed to be Tampa’s first all-black burial ground and disappeared from view as portions were built upon in the late 1920s. The cemetery was forgotten until a Tampa Bay Times special report in June questioned what became of it.
To date, 314 Zion caskets have been discovered.
The 2½-acre cemetery property now has three owners — Gonzmart, the Tampa Housing Authority and Sunstate Wrecker Services. Previously, archaeologists found 144 caskets under part of the Housing Authority’s Robles Park Village apartments and another 55 under part of the wrecking company’s tow lot.
“It seems like nearly everybody was left there,” said Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center. “It seems that Zion was purposely erased."
Zion had room for some 800 proper burials and had a potter’s field for the indigent and unknown. The archaeologists estimated that around 850 were likely interred there.
So where are the remaining burials?
The ground-penetrating radar they use cannot detect every grave, including those where people were buried without caskets. That was normal for African-Americans in the early 1900s.
The radar cannot scan beneath buildings either. Five Robles Park apartment buildings plus warehouses and a vacant storefront were built on top of Zion Cemetery.
“It is reasonable to assume if the concrete slabs are removed that GPR will find graves," Kite-Powell said.
Zion Cemetery was founded by African-American developer Richard Doby and changed hands several times until 1926, when white developers Henry P. Kennedy and Hewitt Walker took it over.
In 1929, Kennedy petitioned to have the taxes he owed on the property suspended because — as a cemetery — it was exempt. But 1929 is also the year Kennedy built the storefront on the property.
Gonzmart purchased his portion of the Zion land for $690,000. He hoped to use it as the site of a culinary school for people in the poor neighborhoods nearby.
The Columbia Restaurant Group immediately announced it will do no further development on that property, according to the press release, and is actively seeking a land swap or sale that would ensure permanent protection and preservation of the cemetery. It will use the buildings short-term until another property can be acquired.
“We said from the beginning that we would do the right thing,” Gonzmart said in a prepared statement. "And this is the right thing. Let them rest in peace.”
It is hoped that the three Zion parcels can be put back together and turned into a memorial park.
“I’m very pleased with this quick decision by the Columbia Restaurant Group,” Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough branch president of the NACCP, said in a statement issued through the press release. “ It’s clear everyone wants the same thing: For this cemetery to be preserved and memorialized.”