The Tampa Housing Authority jump-started the search this summer for the city’s long-lost Zion Cemetery, ultimately discovering what are believed to be 126 caskets on its property north of downtown. Now Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart has agreed to check another piece of the puzzle by hiring archaeologists to investigate his adjacent lot. Gonzmart is doing right by his city and his family’s legacy in helping to rediscover these forgotten souls.
The Tampa Bay Times revealed in a special report in June that Zion Cemetery disappeared from public view in the late 1920s, and that over time the land became occupied by the authority’s Robles Park Village housing complex and warehouses on property now owned by Gonzmart. The housing authority moved swiftly to determine whether any graves might still lie beneath its property, organizing a broad civic coalition, hiring archaeologists and moving tenants from where the segregation-era black cemetery once was located.
Now Gonzmart has announced he will follow suit and hire archaeologists to investigate his property. He also pledged to make the findings public, which is essential.
This is an important step in filling a historical void and in laying a framework for government and private citizens to honor the Zion story. As the Times’ Paul Guzzo reported, archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar have discovered what they believe to be 126 caskets beneath the authority land. They expect to find many more. The chance that only half of that land contains graves “is almost zero,” said a member of the archaeological team. The property line that divides the cemetery land today did not exist when it was established in 1901, and archaeologists have detected casket-like shapes on the Housing Authority property right up to the boundaries of Gonzmart’s land. The original map shows Zion was sectioned large enough to hold up to some 800 graves, with room for about 450 proper burials on land that is now Gonzmart’s property.
Gonzmart did not know about the cemetery in 2016 when he purchased the property along N Florida Avenue. While he said he has "a gut feeling” no bodies will be found on his lot, he also said it “saddens and sickens” him that the cemetery was disturbed. Gonzmart is noncommittal about the next step; he wants to first establish whether any remains exist. But he intends to incorporate a Zion memorial at a culinary school he plans for the property.
State and local officials have committed to go further, proposing legislation to properly record the site and calling for the cemetery to be preserved as a memorial park. The housing authority also has suggested partnering with Gonzmart on his culinary school at a nearby location. Gonzmart’s decision to examine his property will help the community make an informed choice about how to move ahead. Gonzmart — whose great-grandfather started the Columbia Restaurant in historic Ybor City in 1905 — has demonstrated over decades his commitment to Tampa history and heritage. He should continue in that spirit of civic goodwill wherever the evidence and good conscience lead.
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