TAMPA — For the Spotford family, connections with Tampa’s history run deep.
The name remains familiar throughout east Tampa for the Audrey L. Spotford Youth & Family Center.
Now, the family has learned about its links to a darker chapter in the community’s history: Alice and Rosa Spotford were buried in the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground.
What became of their remains might help explain how Zion disappeared nearly a century ago, its estimated 800 graves erased from view as a storefront, a public housing project and warehouses were built on top of it.
It’s possible that Alice Spotford is in one of the nearly 130 caskets detected so far by a team of archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar. There are no records indicating her body was ever moved.
Rosa Spotford, on the other hand, is among the few people buried at Zion who are known to have been relocated. She was reburied in the city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery, where blacks and whites both were interred but in different sections.
At one time, someone took steps to ensure that future generations could visit Rosa’s grave.
But if Alice Spotford is still at Zion Cemetery, she underscores just how powerless African-Americans were during the era of segregation — especially when whites had their own plans for how to use the 2½-acre cemetery property along North Florida Avenue, said Jeff Moates, part of the archaeology team.
According to city directories, her daughter lived just a few blocks from the cemetery when its land was first being developed in the late-1920s and early-1930s.
“I would imagine that a certain level of fear was present for families with loved ones buried there, that speaking out could have brought on some horrible consequences for them," said Moates, regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
“I know their names, but not their stories,” said Spotford descendant and family historian Yvonne Spotford Greene.
“What happened?" said Greene, 76, of Fort Lauderdale, who didn’t know about Zion Cemetery before the Times informed her. "Where is Alice?”
Rosa and Alice Spotford married into the Spotford family. It’s not clear how their husbands were related.
Still, all Spotfords in Tampa in the early 1900s were family, Greene said, and lived in or near the African-American community of Robles Pond — where Zion Cemetery was established in 1901.
The stories of Rosa and Alice unfold in records the Times discovered with help from Drew Smith, an associate librarian specializing in genealogy at the University of South Florida:
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Rosa Crayton became Rosa Spotford when she married Gilbert Spotford in Hillsborough County in 1879. She gave birth to daughter Hattie in 1881 and son Gilbert Jr. the next year.
Alice Lewis married Edward Spotford in 1900 and they had two children — daughter Pressie in 1901 and son Lavern in 1903.
They’re from two different generations. Alice Spotford died in 1913 at 31 and Rosa Spotford died three years later at 53.
The Tampa Bay Times revealed in June that the property along North Florida Avenue had been a cemetery, and in followup research, the archaeology team confirmed in August that caskets still lie beneath the ground there.
Death certificates reviewed by the Times indicate that only nine Zion graves were ever relocated.
Rosa Spotford and Martha Ardis were moved to Woodlawn Cemetery, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The others were relocated to private Memorial Park Cemetery, believed to be Tampa’s second all-black cemetery when it opened in 1919.
They are Caroline Hicks and her son Thomas Henry Hicks, Manerva Outler, Boreta Peters, Will Rogers, William Rooks and Lillie Williams.
City records say the remains of Rosa Spotford were moved in 1918, more than a decade before Zion disappeared.
She shares a plot at Woodlawn with her son and daughter — a family connection that may explain why the other people were moved, as well.
The Hicks couple are part of a family plot in Memorial Park. Outler and Rooks also share a Rooks family plot at Memorial Park. It is unclear how they were related but Minnie Rooks is the witness on Outler’s death certificate.
“It was not uncommon when a new cemetery opened for families to begin buying plots in that new cemetery and move deceased loved ones there,” said Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center.
What’s more, Kite-Powell said, records indicate Zion was nearing capacity in 1918 when Rosa Spotford was relocated.
“It would make sense to move family to Woodlawn," Kite-Powell said, “if you had the means and wanted a family plot.”
He believes the nine graves were likely moved before Zion disappeared and not in reaction to it.
City records confirm this was the case for Ardis, who was moved from Zion to Woodlawn in 1918.
By 1920, seven years after Alice Spotford’s death, her husband and son had relocated to Maryland, according to genealogy records.
Her father Isaac Lewis died in 1926 and mother Annie Lewis a year later. Both death certificates list Memorial Park as their place of burial.
But Isaac and Annie Lewis do not appear in records kept by Memorial Park or gathered in the 1980s by the Florida Genealogical Society.
The society attributes missing names to unmarked graves and the current owners of Memorial Park say they did not inherit records for the cemetery’s first 10 years. What’s more, they said, its records are in disarray.
Perhaps Alice Spotford was moved from Zion to Memorial Park after all, and reburied in the now lost family plot. Perhaps that happened to others among the nearly 800 death certificates that list Zion as the burial place.
“It is possible,” said Shelby Bender, who wrote the book Tampa’s Historic Cemeteries. “We know not everyone was moved from Zion but there could be others who were moved to Memorial whose graves cannot be identified.”
Nearly a century later, Greene, the Spotford descendant, looks forward to the results of ground surveys and genealogical research that still are underway for Zion Cemetery.
“Alice Spotford is part of our family," Greene said. "We should know where she is.”