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Radar finds more than 120 coffins buried beneath Tampa apartment complex

The news brings residents of Robles Park Village to tears. The place where they live was built on the site of long-forgotten Zion Cemetery.

TAMPA — Zion Cemetery has been found.

Ground-penetrating radar has detected what appear to be more than 120 coffins under an apartment complex in Tampa, the remains of the lost cemetery revealed by the Tampa Bay Times.

The 2½-acre, segregation-era burial ground, believed to be the city’s first for African-Americans, was established in 1901 along the 3700 block of Florida Ave. and extended back around 400 feet.

It disappeared nearly a century ago when the land was parceled off for white developments.

No one tried to find it until now.

The radar confirmed that Zion is still there, parts of it at least, under ground that today is home to the back of the Robles Park Village public housing complex owned by the Tampa Bay Housing Authority.

People who live there began learning the news Friday.

Clark Simmons, vice president of the tenant council, was brought to tears.

“Those people are still there,” Simmons said. “Jesus Christ.”

RELATED: His church has ties to Zion. He forgives those who ignored the bodies and developed it.

Archaeologist Eric Prendergast described the find: “Reflections of rectangular objects that are the size and shape of coffins between four and six feet in depth.”

Prendergast is principal project investigator for private archaeological assessment company Cardno, hired by the Housing Authority to investigate whether occupied graves remain on its land.

“The reflections are arranged in rows and oriented east-west within boundaries of a former cemetery," Prendergast added.

Asked if the shapes could show something other than caskets, Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno, replied, “That would be too big of a coincidence.”

The Times published a special report about the forgotten cemetery in June, prompting the Housing Authority to hire the archaeologists.

During a nine-month search, the Times pieced together the cemetery’s lost history but found no evidence of a mass reburial.

ORIGINAL STORY: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Catch up on all the news about Zion Cemetery from the Tampa Bay Times

In response to the report, the Housing Authority set up the Zion Cemetery Archaeological Consultation Committee, with members from the authority, the city of Tampa, the NAACP, the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida, the Robles Park Apartments Residents Council and Cardno.

Cardno informed the committee at its meeting Friday that the caskets had been found.

Like Simmons, Reva Iman, president of the Robles Park Village Tenants Council, wept as she walked out of the meeting room.

Members of a committee established by the Tampa Housing Authority learn from archaeologists Friday that ground-penetrating radar revealed there are caskets buried at the Robles Park Village apartments. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Said Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority’s chief operating officer: “Zion is an active cemetery."

For Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, seeing the tears at the meeting diminished her satisfaction at finally knowing whether bodies remain on the site.

“This is due to white people hating black people,” Lewis said.

Overall, the archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be 126 caskets. But there are likely more.

The radar cannot detect century-old human remains if they weren’t buried in a coffin. It was typical in the early 1900s for poor African-Americans to be buried in fabric shrouds and old bones would be too deteriorated to appear on a scan.

In addition, the portion of Robles Park Village once home to Zion Cemetery now has five apartment buildings on it. Radar cannot see through their floors.

What’s more, Cardno had access to less than 40 percent of the cemetery property — the portion owned by the Housing Authority. The rest is owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart.

“Everywhere we have tested that one would assume has a burial ... has proven to have burials," Prendergast said. “Therefore, we can predict the rest of the cemetery has burials, unless they were removed.”

Cardno cannot be certain, though, without surveying the rest of the site.

Gonzmart’s attorney Jeff Shannon told the Times via email Friday that next steps include meeting with those who have conducted the research.

“We will use all that we learn,” Shannon said, "to make thoughtful decisions for our company and our community.”

Gonzmart had planned to build a culinary school on the property to help low-income people work into profitable careers.

But now that the property is known to be a “previously marked cemetery,” he will have to determine whether there are bodies there before he can build, said Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

If human remains are found, Moates said, Gonzmart could still build there but not before moving them to a cemetery.

The Housing Authority has said it will not remove any of the bodies.

When the agency redevelops Robles Park Village in the coming years, the Zion Cemetery land will be turned into a memorial park operated by the city. The park will honor the pioneering African-Americans buried there.

The Housing Authority hopes Gonzmart will add his property to the park.

Relocation will begin soon for the people living the five Robles Park Village buildings that occupy the burial ground, all in the 200 block of East Stratford and East Kentucky avenues.

The authority needs to consider moving everyone who lives there sooner than planned, said COO Moore. All told, Robles Park Village is home to 1,118 people in 483 units across 67 buildings.

The Times discovered death certificates for 382 people who were buried in Zion. A cemetery historian who conducted followup research said he found 747.

Zion had room for some 800 graves plus a potter’s field for the indigent and unknown. The potter’s field contained 27 of the caskets found by the archaeologists.

In 1951, the Housing Authority unearthed three caskets during construction of Robles Park Village but did not search for more. At the time, the apartment complex was open to whites only.

Some bodies may have been moved through the years and others were left behind, the archaeologists said.

“It’s possible that there are coffins without bodies,” said Jones, the project manager. “It is possible there are remains of coffins. It is possible that there are completely undisturbed coffins. We won’t be able to answer anything definitively until the next step of the process.”

The next step would be “ground truthing,” or digging into the ground in a way that leaves the bodies undisturbed.

The Housing Authority is considering how to proceed with the work.