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Tampa Housing Authority forms committee to search for the lost Zion Cemetery

This is a drone photo of Robles Park Village in Tampa taken on April 24.  In 1951 when these projects were being built, workers dug up three bodies near the spot where this photo was taken.  Newspaper accounts from the time said the bodies were buried in Zion Cemetery and should have been moved in 1925. (LUIS SANTANA   |   Times)
This is a drone photo of Robles Park Village in Tampa taken on April 24. In 1951 when these projects were being built, workers dug up three bodies near the spot where this photo was taken. Newspaper accounts from the time said the bodies were buried in Zion Cemetery and should have been moved in 1925. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)
Published Jul. 19
Updated Oct. 15

Three caskets were unearthed in 1951 during the construction of the Tampa Housing Authority's Robles Park Apartments.

The city of Tampa told the Housing Authority at that time that the graves were from the 2.5-acre Zion Cemetery, formerly on that land.

Housing Authority minutes from that year and the next do not indicate a search for more graves.

Nearly 70 years later, the Zion Cemetery Archaeological Consultation Committee is charged with performing that due diligence.

"Things were not done appropriately," Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Housing Authority, said Friday to the group assembled for the first time. "We can right that wrong."

The committee was formed by the Housing Authority in reaction to a special report published last month by the Tampa Bay Times.

During a nine-month search, the Times pieced together Zion's lost history, including that it was first the African-American cemetery recognized by the city of Tampa and had room for some 800 burials.

The Times found no records of where the people buried there were moved, leaving the possibility that graves remain on the property that stretches across the 3700 block of Florida Ave. containing warehouses, and then 400 feet back into a row of Robles Park apartments.

The committee is focused on the Housing Authority's 1.2 acres that once were a part of Zion.

The other 1.3 acres are owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart.

"We have continued our historic investigation and we are awaiting feedback from the city and Housing Authority on how they are proceeding," Gonzmart attorney Jeff Shannon said Friday.

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

The committee is made up of representatives from the Housing Authority, city, NAACP, Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida, Robles Park Apartments Residents Council and Cardno.

Cardno is the private archeological assessment company that recently excavated the 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery found during construction of the $3 billion downtown Water Street development.

It will work with the Florida Public Archaeology Network to scan the property with ground-penetrating radar that can detect graves. They have not committed to a timeline.

No decisions were made at Friday's meeting, but committee members met one another. They learned the history of the cemetery that was built in 1901 and disappeared nearly a century ago.

They wondered if the Housing Authority in 1951 would have looked for more graves if Zion were a white cemetery.

"It makes me angry to think of their indifference," Housing Authority CEO Jerome Ryans said.

Those representing Robles Park conveyed residents' concerns.

"There is hysteria that they might be living on a cemetery," Clark Simmons said.

Added Reva Iman, "We have residents who want to move out. They don't feel comfortable."

The Housing Authority's Moore asked that they remind residents that only "five of our buildings encroach the cemetery land."

If the investigation finds graves with human remains, Moore added, the residents of those buildings "can be placed somewhere else."

Committee members agreed that human remains should not be disinterred.

"Why disturb them?" Moore said.

Moore suggested that the city acquire the Housing Authority's 1.2 acres to be made into Zion Cemetery Memorial Park.

"We can protect everything there and not disturb anything and turn it into a park," said Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno.

So that the full cemetery site can be reassembled into the memorial, the committee hopes Gonzmart will do the same with his piece of the Zion property now used for warehouses.

"We would consider it depending the outcome of the investigation," said Shannon, Gonzmart's attorney.

Moore thinks a park of some sort should be the goal once redevelopment of the apartments begins in the coming years, even if the investigation concludes that all the bodies were removed.

"It doesn't matter if we find a single skeleton," Moore said. "This is a site of historic significance" because it was the first black cemetery recognized by the city.

The Times found 382 death certificates for Zion.

Cemetery historian Ray Reed claims to have discovered 747.

Eunive Massey, a 96-year-old who once lived next to Zion, previously recalled to the Times seeing some burials exhumed in 1933 but described a chaotic process that left human remains exposed in open graves over weekends.

Woman, 96, recalls placing flowers on graves before Zion Cemetery disappeared from memory

"Whether 400 or 800 were interred in that small area, only three were left behind?" Moore said. "I am skeptical, but we are going to find out."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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