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  1. Opinion

How do hundreds of graves just disappear? | Editorial

They all had names - these mothers, fathers, daughters and sons - and they lived in Tampa during a period in history when blacks carried their unequal status to the grave. Now an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times has found that hundreds of African-Americans who died last century may be buried in an unmarked cemetery north of downtown Tampa. The community has an obligation to account for these remains and to honor these residents' life stories.

For two decades, Tampa's black community buried its dead along a stretch of North Florida Avenue that's now home to a restaurant warehouse and a public housing complex. Zion Cemetery, the first African-American cemetery recognized by the city, established in 1901, has been forgotten. There's no sign today that a cemetery once occupied 2 ½ acres here, no hint of the squares plotted out on an old map showing nearly 800 graves.

But acting on a tip last fall, the Times' Paul Guzzo began examining what became of it. After reviewing thousands of historic records and conducting dozens of interviews, the Times identified death certificates for 382 people who were buried at Zion from 1913 to 1920. There were likely many more. Deaths were not always recorded in an era when no regulations protected graves and when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. The Times determined 13 of the bodies were moved, most of them to two Tampa cemeteries. But what became of the others? No one knows. A local amateur historian involved in the search said the number buried could be at least 747, or nearly double the figure reported thus far.

Whatever the number, the city should work with landowners, archivists and scientists to determine what happened to Zion Cemetery and whether any bodies remain. Establishing the facts is an essential starting point for the next step, from recovering the remains to recognizing the site with an historical marker. The research process would enrich Tampa's cultural history and could fill some personal gaps for living descendents.

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

Archeologists at the University of South Florida have the skill sets and equipment to help. The Tampa Housing Authority, which owns the apartments, and Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group should allow researchers to use ground penetrating radar on the properties to learn if the graves ares still there.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has reached out to USF for assistance and encouraged the housing authority and Gonzmart to help in ensuring that any remains are properly buried and recorded. The housing authority said it would welcome an investigation. While Gonzmart has not committed to allowing radar on his property, he told the Times he recognized the significance of this discovery. His cooperation would be in keeping with Gonzmart's long, commendable practice of contributing to preserve Tampa's heritage.

This is an opportunity to solve a mystery and turn a sad chapter in the city’s history into a unifying experience. The community has the expertise and resources at hand to develop a good picture of what happened to Zion Cemetery. These early pioneers are an indelible part of the Tampa story, and now they deserve the dignity that was denied them in their lifetimes.