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Work to memorialize Zion Cemetery continues from self-isolation

A fence will be erected around the housing authority’s portion of Zion land. It will display the names of the nearly 800 buried there.
A Times investigation led to the rediscovery of Zion Cemetery underneath Robles Park Village.
A Times investigation led to the rediscovery of Zion Cemetery underneath Robles Park Village. [ Google Earth ]
Published Apr. 16, 2020
Updated Apr. 16, 2020

TAMPA — Even from self-isolation, those charged with memorializing the erased Zion Cemetery continue their work.

The Zion Cemetery Archaeological Consultation Committee met virtually on Thursday due to the coronavirus.

They announced that within a month, a 6-foot fence will be erected around the portion of Zion that still exists under five Robles Park Village public housing complex buildings.

Then, in June, archaeologists will begin ground truthing — the process of physically verifying the hundreds of caskets previously discovered with ground-penetrating radar.

Ground truthing is accomplished by digging just close enough to coffins so as to not disturb them. It can be done while following federal social distancing guidelines, said Eric Prendergast, principal investigator for the private archaeology firm Cardno, which led the search for Zion.

Besides verifying caskets, they also want to investigate areas from where they believe bodies were removed.

That occurred in the 1930s, according to an oral history previously provided to the Times by Eunive Massey, who lived next to Zion and witnessed graves being exhumed. Massey recalled a hectic process that left bones behind.

If human remains are still in that area, Prendergast said, it must be noted so those are not disturbed when a memorial park is built.

Established in 1901, Zion is believed to be the city of Tampa’s first all-black burial ground.

Store fronts and homes were erected on it in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The headstones were removed, but hundreds of bodies were not. Robles Park was then erected on some of the land in 1951.

The cemetery was forgotten until last June, when the Tampa Bay Times questioned whether the bodies were moved. It was then that the physical search for Zion began.

The five Robles buildings, which totaled 29 units, on Zion land are now vacant, the housing authority announced on Thursday. Those residents have been relocated to other public housing.

The coming fence is meant to keep the public out of the buildings.

But it will also have a decorative screen that tells the history of Zion through photographs of news clips and will list the names of the nearly 800 people known to have been buried in the segregation-era cemetery.

“That will put names to this mystery of Zion,” Leroy Moore, Chief Operating Officer of the Tampa Housing Authority that operates Robles Park.

The fence will also display a web address where Zion’s full history will be told. The website is being created and will be managed by the University of South Florida.

It will have the “genealogy of every person who is buried there ... as well as other historic information accessible to the public,” said Rebecca O’Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at USF. She was part of the team that found Zion.

The genealogy effort is being led by Drew Smith of USF, who continues to work with a team of volunteers from self-isolation.

Related: Read how the Zion story unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Overall, Zion was 2 1/2 acres. Robles Park sits on around half of it.

Warehouse land owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart are on most of the other half. A tow lot covers a portion of Zion that is roughly the size of a basketball court.

Ground-penetrating radar discovered around 300 caskets on those three pieces of land, but archaeologists believe there could be hundreds more.

The Zion committee — established by the housing authority and made up of representatives of the city of Tampa, Robles Park residents, civil rights leaders, archaeologists and historians — only has a say over what happens to the Robles land.

But the three property owners have agreed to re-assemble the parcels and create a memorial park managed by a non-profit.

The five Robles buildings — all in the 200 block of East Stratford and East Kentucky avenues — will be razed in the coming years.