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Tenant leaders seek quicker relocation for people living near Zion Cemetery

At a panel discussion on the African-American burial ground, one leader laments: "People feel like spirits are eating with them.”

TAMPA — The process is slow, but moving 29 families who live in a public housing complex atop the forgotten Zion Cemetery has begun.

That’s the message from Leroy Moore, Tampa Housing Authority senior vice president and chief operating officer.

But speaking Tuesday at a panel discussion, Moore cautioned that people living elsewhere in the sprawling Robles Park Village are not eligible to be moved simply for being located near a cemetery despite demands from tenant leaders there.

The leaders also urged quicker action to move the 29 families, who occupy five buildings, and to carry out longer-range Housing Authority plans to redevelop aging Robles Park Village and its 85 buildings.

“We believe the relocation needs to start, like yesterday,” said Reva Iman, president of the Robles Park Village Tenants Council. "People feel like spirits are eating with them.”

A panel discussion on Tampa's forgotten Zion Cemetery drew a crowd of about 90 people to the Tampa Bay History Center on Tuesday. [PAUL GUZZO | TIMES | PAUL GUZZO | Times]

The exchange occurred at a panel discussion on Zion Cemetery attended by about 90 people and hosted by the Tampa Bay History Center. The panelists were Moore, staff members from the Tampa Bay Times, and a member of an archaeological team that has detected caskets beneath the Zion property.

Zion is believed to be the first African-American cemetery in the Tampa area. More than 800 bodies likely were buried there in the early 1900s but it disappeared from public view in the late 1920s and a storefront, warehouses and Robles Park Village were built on the property.

The Times revealed the story of Zion in a special report June 23 and archaeological research has confirmed that caskets remain there.

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

COMPLETE COVERAGE: How the story of Zion has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

Many of the Robles Park tenants come from spiritual backgrounds, Iman said. They believe that there are good spirits and bad spirits and that they’re being haunted.

“People are still afraid,” she said. “This is an everyday situation. I hear it because I stay there.”

The Housing Authority established a 90-day window for moving the 29 families, but as for the other tenants, Moore noted that many people live in close proximity to cemeteries — from the Housing Authority’s Belmont Heights Estates to “affluent neighborhoods throughout the U.S.”

Still, he said, to provide reassurance as all tenants await relocation another round of archaeological research using ground penetrating radar will be conducted early next year.

The target this time: Areas beyond the borders shown on a map of Zion Cemetery from the year it was established, 1901.

Clark Simmons, vice president of the Tenants Council at Robles Parks Village, said he wasn’t satisfied with Moore's response.

“It’s almost mind boggling that we were forgotten purposely,” Simmons said from the audience during the panel discussion. “This was not a mistake. This was done purposely. These particular buildings were built at that time for white America, so they didn’t care if they were down there.”

When it was built in 1951, Robles Park Village was occupied mainly by white families but people of color account for most of the tenants today.

Simmons said he heard about the cemetery from his grandmother in the 1970s.

"The people over there are spiritually and mentally going through some trauma because the bodies have been there.”

The tenant leaders said those living throughout Robles Park Village feel the place is “infected” by its proximity to the cemetery.

Moore later said he was sympathetic with the tenants.

“People have been lied to before,” he said. Zion, he added, "wasn’t lost, it was ignored. That’s the shameful reality and we’ve got to try to right it.”

He noted that the Housing Authority is paying for the archaeological research, is losing 8 percent of its Robles Park Village revenue by moving out the 29 families, and has taken the lead in trying to establish a memorial park on the 2½ acres the cemetery occupied along North Florida Avenue.

Moore said he hopes a memorial can portray the people buried at Zion in a way different from how Tampa views them today, as forgotten people. Rather, he said, they should be remembered as the business class, the working class, those who were influential in building the city’s history.

“Tell the story ... as something we can be proud of, a part of Tampa’s history that’s been rediscovered.”