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Zion Cemetery was filled to capacity before it vanished, archaeologists say

Research confirms that at least 742 people were buried on property that’s now home to warehouses and a public housing complex.
Dennis Creech, left, owner of Sunstate Wrecker Services, and General Manager Tony Huffman say they would feel the loss of property once occupied by long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. But they wouldn't feel right continuing to use it now that they know. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Dennis Creech, left, owner of Sunstate Wrecker Services, and General Manager Tony Huffman say they would feel the loss of property once occupied by long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. But they wouldn't feel right continuing to use it now that they know. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Oct. 4, 2019

TAMPA — As their research revealed more and more coffin-shaped objects beneath the ground, archaeologists began to wonder whether Zion Cemetery — at first, just a long-forgotten map from 1901 — had eventually reached its capacity.

Now, they’re certain of it.

Rebecca O’Sullivan with the Florida Public Archaeology Network, part of the team that discovered the coffin shapes, has reviewed death certificates listing Zion as the burial place and certified 742 of them.

“I have seen the death records for those and can say, yes, they were buried in Zion,” O’Sullivan said. “And we think there are more.”

Meantime, the research has also revealed that there is a third owner of the 2½-acre site along North Florida Boulevard once occupied by Zion Cemetery — Dennis Creech, whose Sunstate Wrecker Services towing lot includes a Zion parcel the size of a basketball court.

Said Creech, “I am okay with doing whatever I can do to make this right."

RELATED STORY: History Center panel to explore rediscovery of Tampa’s forgotten Zion Cemetery

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

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Read how the story of Zion Cemetery has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

When the Tampa Bay Times revealed in June that there was a cemetery beneath land now occupied by warehouses and a public housing complex, it wasn’t clear whether the bodies had been moved or whether they’re still there.

The Times found 382 death certificates listing Zion as the burial place and cemetery researcher Ray Reed expanded on the search, coming up with nearly 800.

Ground-penetrating radar was brought in and confirmed there still are bodies there, detecting 130 coffin shapes beneath the ground.

The 1901 map shows there was room in Zion Cemetery for about 800 proper burials, plus a potter’s field for the indigent and unknown. Zion, established in 1901, is believed to be the Tampa area’s first African-American cemetery.

The death certificates found by Reed and certified by archaeologist O’Sullivan may not reflect all the burials there.

No one has found Zion burial records for 1901-1909.

This composite created by Rebecca O'Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network shows room for more than 800 burials at the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery. It is based on a 1901 map of the African-American burial ground. [REBECCA O'SULLIVAN | Florida Public Archaeology Network]

And Reed also has discovered records for around 200 African-Americans from 1907-1909 that list no cemetery. There is reason to believe they were buried at Zion: The undertaker, O’Sullivan said, is A.E. Coles, who handled the burials of nearly everyone interred at Zion from 1910-1912.

“It appears he buried exclusively in Zion,” she said.

Records for the year 1918 add to O’Sullivan’s belief that Zion Cemetery eventually was filled. That was the year of the global flu pandemic when deaths spiked worldwide. But at Zion, the number of burials dropped compared to the year before.

“I looked at Woodlawn Cemetery and burials spiked in 1918,” she said. “They should have spiked in Zion unless it was full, and people were buried elsewhere.”

From 1919 through 1923, the last year a Zion burial was recorded, only 21 people were interred there, according to death certificates.

The team of archaeologists surveying the property was hired by the Tampa Housing Authority, which owns nearly half the land once occupied by Zion and operates the Robles Park Village public housing project there.

Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart owns much of the other half and said he will soon hire archaeologists, too.

One proposal for the property is to remove the buildings and turn it into a memorial park. State and local officials are seeking funds for a park and perhaps to compensate Gonzmart.

A parcel of land the size of a basketball court along North Florida Avenue in Tampa makes Dennis Creech of Sunstate Wrecker Services the third owner of property that once was Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Sunstate Wrecker Services is open to the idea of a park.

“This is sad that something like this happened,” said Creech, who learned from the Times this month that he owns a piece of Zion Cemetery.

Whether he could hire his own archaeologists “depends on how expensive it is," he said.

Most of the Sunstate property was once home to First Mt. Carmel AME Church. The cemetery was cut out around the church, according to old maps.

But an overlay of the cemetery map onto a modern street grid shows that the basketball court-sized piece of property was part of the potter’s field.

“It would cramp us more to lose that piece of our land,” said Sunstate’s general manager Tony Huffman. “But we wouldn’t feel right using it. The people who were buried deserve better."

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