TAMPA — Nearly a century ago, a white Tampa businessman bought the 2½ acre Zion Cemetery property for a dollar, claimed the tax credits that came with owning a graveyard and then built stores on top the caskets —beginning the erasure of an African American burial ground where some 800 were interred.
In the decades since then, officials with the city of Tampa had a number of chances to right that wrong but didn’t.
Now that Zion has been found — covered by warehouses, a tow lot and the Robles Park Village housing complex — civil rights activists are demanding that today’s leaders step up to honor those buried there.
“City of Tampa, you didn’t do it but you can fix it," Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis said Thursday, speaking before a Zion Cemetery advisory committee appointed by the Tampa Housing Authority.
The city has promised to work with the state of Florida to find funding for the purchase of the three parcels that make up the Zion Cemetery property so they can be reassembled into a memorial park managed by a nonprofit organization.
Lewis said she wants a detailed plan in writing, soon.
“I’ve gotten nothing but broken promises," she said. “Hopes and dreams, the same things my ancestors had.”
Her emotional appeal came moments after Cardno, the private archaeology firm leading the investigation of the Zion land, revealed to the committee that the city was presented with a third opportunity through the years to make good on its neglect of Zion Cemetery.
The two earlier opportunities were reported in June when the Tampa Bay Times revealed the existence of the cemetery. First, in 1929, the city acknowledged the cemetery was there even as it approved the construction of storefronts on the property. Then, in 1951, three caskets with the remains of children were unearthed as work began on the Robles Park Village complex.
The new revelation from Cardno is a 1962 newspaper clipping, from the Tampa Tribune, showing human remains were discovered on the property by a homeowner digging in his yard.
Now, activist Connie Burton told the committee, the city of Tampa “needs the courage to say that this generation is going to do what’s right."
Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes took a different view, telling the Times on Thursday that the property owners are the ones who should present a detailed plan to the city.
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“That is not city property,” said Gudes, whose district includes the Zion land. “Once the property owners have a plan, then the mayor can get involved and present it to the council. We are willing to help out in any way we can.”
Zion was established in 1901 by African American developer Richard Doby in the 3700 block of N Florida Ave. By 1926, it was owned by Alice W. Fuller of California, who sold it for $1 to developers Henry P. Kennedy and Hewitt Walker.
Three years later, Kennedy built a storefront on a portion of the property fronting Florida Avenue, according to newspaper archives. Today, that land is owned and used for warehouse space by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. Archaeologists have found 115 caskets on the parcel.
On Thursday, Cardno showed a map detailing the location of each casket. Portions of the caskets disappear beneath the now-vacant storefront, apparently indicating that the structure was built on top of them.
Joan Kennedy Biddle, the daughter of the man who built the store, was shocked and surprised to hear the news when contacted by phone Thursday.
“That sounds morbid,” Biddle said. “I don’t know anything about that. I have never heard of Zion.”
Kennedy obtained his building permit in February 1929, newspapers reported. The following month, the City Council approved a petition to cancel Kennedy’s taxes on the property for 1927 and 1928 because it was used as a cemetery, according to meeting minutes discovered by the Times.
“They knew what was going on,” said Jeff Moates, who, as regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, is part of the team that found the caskets. “They knew it was a cemetery."
The meeting minutes refer to the property as the former site of Zion Cemetery even though it was still there.
“As far as the city was concerned, it was no longer a cemetery," Moates said. "It was valuable land to be developed.”
The Times found legal advertisements published in newspapers indicating that Kennedy began selling parcels of the Zion Cemetery property in 1937. One buyer was Mary Jane Pleus, who built the Blue Moon Poultry Shop next to Kennedy’s storefront. Records the Times found indicate the city also approved this construction.
Pleus knew nothing about a cemetery, her granddaughter Sharon Shepherdson has told the Times. The poultry shop was later demolished. Archaeologists have learned that it, too, was built over graves.
Zion came to light again in 1951 when the three caskets were discovered during construction of Robles Park Village. No one looked for more graves then. Archaeologists have detected 144 caskets on this section of the cemetery land.
In 1962, the skeleton was found by a man digging to bury trash in the backyard of his Ruth Avenue home. Today, the land is part of the Sunstate Wrecker Services towing lot where archaeologists have discovered 55 caskets.
“Several long-time residents of the area said a Negro cemetery was once located in that section,” the newspaper clipping from the time reads. Again, no one looked for more graves.
Overall, archaeologists have surveyed around half of the Zion Cemetery land using ground-penetrating radar, Cardno’s Prendergast told the committee. If they were to scan the other half, he said, they’d likely find that nearly all the graves are still there.
“At no point has Zion been totally forgotten,” Rebecca O’Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network told the Times. “People have remembered it at all of those different points over the years. But the city never did anything.”