TAMPA — Who knew about the forgotten Zion Cemetery and when did they know it?
It’s a question local NAACP leaders have been asking to determine who is accountable for the disappearance of what was believed to be Tampa’s first African American cemetery, established in 1901 and gone from public view by the late 1920s.
One answer appears to be white landowners who, in documents filed with the city of Tampa, acknowledged the cemetery was there during the same year they sought approval to build on the land. It was 1929.
But Times research into the story of Zion indicates that local blacks knew, too — and even shopped at the bakery, poultry store and furniture store that were built on top of the cemetery.
Still, it would be wrong to see their actions as a sign of disinterest in how the final resting place for more than 800 people was erased, say the NAACP and a local historian. Rather, they say, it shows how Tampa treated African Americans as second class citizens.
“It is like when the masters would take a whip," said Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis, and beat an enslaved person to death — "then tell another to take that same whip and go tame a wild animal.
“They knew it was the whip of death but they did it anyway and then brought that whip back to the master. They were living in a nightmare. They were too scared.”
Zion was established in 1901 by African American developer Richard Doby in the 3700 block of N Florida Ave. By 1926, it was owned by developers Henry P. Kennedy and Hewitt Walker. Three years later, Kennedy built a storefront on top of graves on a portion of the property fronting Florida Avenue, according to newspaper archives.
One of the first businesses to move in was bakery. A few years later, an addition was built for a poultry shop.
The land was part of the largely African American neighborhood known as Robles Pond. Locals shopped at the new businesses.
“They didn’t want to make waves,” said Fred Hearns, who chronicles Tampa’s African American history. “The KKK was powerful. People were still getting lynched. If no one shopped there or if anyone suggested they should not, they’d be at risk of retaliation."
The couple who owned the poultry shop had no idea it was built on a cemetery, their granddaughter, Sharon Shepherdson, has told the Times. They loved the people of the neighborhood, Shepherdson said, and were among the few white families who lived there.
Eunive Massey, born in Robles Pond in 1923, lived next to Zion Cemetery and agreed that the poultry shop owners were good and supportive people.
Still, Hearns said, if African Americans had spoken up — even with the support of the shop owners — someone might have reacted violently.
“They didn’t want blacks to have a voice,” Hearns said. “Anyone who tried to have one would have been silenced.”
Zion faded away with the construction of the storefronts and then a few homes behind the shops. The final headstones were gone by the mid-1930s.
But the Times revealed the story of Zion Cemetery with a special report in June, raising questions about whether the bodies were ever moved. Archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar soon confirmed that they were not.
As a girl, Massey remembers seeing a haphazard effort to relocate graves behind the stores and homes. Her childhood memories begin after the stores were erected, but her mother would have known there were bodies still under the buildings.
Still, she said, her family and others from the neighborhood frequented the shops that also included a furniture store.
“My mother never said anything. No one did,” Massey said. “I wish I had known.”
Massey now wonders whether this was a defense mechanism. Perhaps, she said, it was easier to act like the atrocity never occurred.
Elders never spoke of Zion, she said. And because burials had stopped by 1923, she and other children thought it was an abandoned cemetery for white people.
“We figured if it was for us, people we knew would have been buried there,” Massey said.
The stores were a part of the community.
The poultry shop gave away chicken to Massey’s mother, a widowed mother of nine. The bakery would hand out the “day-olds,” Massey said.
“Black people in Tampa back then didn’t have much,” historian Hearns said. “So, they had to be more focused on feeding their families" than fighting for equality. “What were they going to do about it? They had no voice."
That’s why African Americans didn’t protest when they were served out the back window of white-owned restaurants, said Lewis with the NAACP.
“It didn’t stop until people had the courage to rise up."
Such bravery would not have come easy for the generation who saw Zion erased, she said.
“You cannot imagine what they lived through," she said.
Adults in Robles Pond during the 1920s probably had parents or grandparents who had been enslaved.
Now, said Lewis and Hearns, it’s time for the city to take the lead in ensuring that future generations understand the sense of fear and powerlessness behind the story of Zion.
“Tampa has ignored it for too long," Lewis said. “But you can’t silence us any longer. Our story will be told.”