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There’s a ghost town now where graves were found at Robles Park Village

The Tampa Housing Authority has relocated the 29 families who were living atop the forgotten Zion Cemetery.
Only one family remains now that Roneshia Costin and her four children have moved out of the section of Robles Park Village that sits atop the forgotten Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

TAMPA — Roneshia Costin had heard the rumors that Robles Park Village was built on a cemetery and often came across signs that her apartment there was haunted.

“I’d hear cabinets closing when no one was home and wonder, ‘Ghosts?” Costin said.

Now, it’s official. The building she called home for three years — along with a whole section of the public housing complex — stands as a ghost town, vacated to await demolition some day as part of a planned memorial.

On Wednesday, Costin, 28, and her four children moved out of their apartment in the 200 block of East Kentucky Ave. Hers was one of five apartment buildings found to have been erected on top of the forgotten, segregation-era, all-black Zion Cemetery.

The cemetery was revealed June 23 in a special Tampa Bay Times report and graves were confirmed there in August following a search by archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar.

The Tampa Housing Authority quickly moved to relocate the 29 families living in the five buildings. Costin’s departure leaves just one family and they’re scheduled to move out by the end of this week, property manager Walter Guy said.

Shuttering this section of Robles Park leaves the sprawling public housing complex, built in the 1950s, with around 450 apartments in 62 buildings.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

A tour of the vacant buildings shows pieces of lives left behind — mattresses and kitchen utensils, Legos scattered across a floor, a pink Barbie bike with training wheels behind a closet door.

“Everyone was in a real hurry to get out," Costin said. "As soon as most could, they left.”

As the apartments are vacated, screen doors are screwed shut and every window no matter how small is boarded up.

Screen doors are being screwed shot and windows boarded up as families move out of a section of Robles Park Village that was built in the 1950s on top of the forgotten Zion Cemetery. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

“Vandalism is always a possibility,” Guy said.

In the coming weeks, a fence will be installed around the five buildings for security and to cover the next stage of the archaeologists’ work. Their radar imaging has revealed around 300 coffins on Zion’s 2½ acre footprint — the Robles Park Village section plus warehouse land and a tow lot.

Now, the archaeologists will work to validate their findings by digging just close enough to caskets to confirm their existence without touching them.

The Housing Authority hopes the barrier will serve a third purpose, too: Telling the story of Zion using the fence screen, said Leroy Moore, the authority’s chief operating officer.

“The fence screen can be used as part of our continuous awareness and education on Zion so people get informed of what it is, it’s importance," Moore said.

Zion is believed to have been Tampa’s first all-black cemetery, the final resting place for the city’s African American pioneers.

Guy said he had never heard of Zion Cemetery or its history before the special report appeared in the Times.

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

But he had heard the rumblings about a burial ground beneath Robles Park Village.

“Old-timers on the property had mentioned it,” said Guy, who has worked at Robles Park for six years. “I was shocked it was true.”

Costin heard the rumor during two stays at Robles Park, as a child from 6 to 12 and later as an adult.

“Then I learned there really was a cemetery," she said. And her suspicions about ghosts grew.

Reactions to the news among Robles Park Village residents varied.

“Some were spooked,” Guy said. “Others were appalled."

That’s why the Housing Authority starting the relocation process before the graves were confirmed.

Nineteen families transferred to another Housing Authority property, nine moved to homes available through federal Section 8 housing subsidies, and one moved to another Robles Park Village apartment.

“The families are all happy with where they are going,” Guy said. “Most of them moved to a place with amenities. We don’t have amenities here — no ceiling fan, no garbage disposal, no central air conditioning, the things many of us take for granted.”

Costin found Section 8 housing in Valrico. The 1,400-square-foot home is larger than her Robles Park apartment and has a “big fenced in yard," said Costin, who works at a Chipotle and is training to become a medical assistant.

“Everything is going right,” she said. “This is working out. We have a new home and hopefully I’ll find a good job and we can continue on.”

She has kept the reason for the move a secret from her children, 11, 8, 7 and 1.

“I didn’t want to scare them. I kept them secluded in the house from the other kids so that they don’t know.”

Others managed to figure it out: In one of the vacant apartments, scribbled on the wall of a child’s second-floor bedroom, is the image of a ghost.

People who lived in Robes Park Village had heard rumors it was built on top of a burial ground and wondered if there were ghosts. Someone illustrated the question with a doodle on the wall of a child's bedroom. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]