A public housing complex was built on top of the forgotten Zion Cemetery. Google Earth | Cemetery overlay courtesy of the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office

It began with Zion

A number of cemeteries forgotten through the years across the Tampa Bay area came to light during 2019, most of them final resting places for African-Americans. The new attention to old burial grounds springs from a Tampa Bay Times report in June that revealed the first and largest of them – Zion Cemetery in Tampa. Historians predict more discoveries will follow in 2020. Here’s how the stories have unfolded so far.

Zion Cemetery

Map from 1901 show groups of graves, superimposed over today’s Robles Park Village apartments (long brown buildings) and warehouses.

3721 N. Florida Ave., Tampa
Cemetery researcher Ray Reed, interviewed by Paul Guzzo of the Times about a neglected Hillsborough County burial ground, tipped Guzzo off to death certificates he had come across listing a burial ground Reed had never seen – Zion Cemetery. After months of research, Guzzo and reporting partner James Borchuck found the answer: More than 800 people were buried along North Florida Avenue in what was believed to be Tampa’s first all-black cemetery. Established in 1901, Zion disappeared from public view by the late 1920s. Today, the Zion land is home to part of the Robles Park Village public housing complex and warehouse property owned by restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. Archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar have found nearly 200 graves and expect to find more.

Ridgewood Cemetery

Pink squares within the trees show graves at the south end of the King High School campus.

6815 N 56th St., Tampa
The Zion story drew national and international attention, spurring Ray Reed to share another tip that would be pursued by Guzzo and University of South Florida archaeologists. While their research still was under way, Reed went straight to the Hillsborough County School District with evidence there might have been a cemetery beneath King High School in Tampa. Within 24 hours, on Oct. 17, the school district went public with the tip. Research by the Times would reveal that as many as 267 people were buried during the mid-20th century in a pauper’s cemetery on the south side of what is today the King High campus. At least 145 of the graves are still there, ground-penetrating radar showed. Most of those buried in the one-acre cemetery were African-Americans. The area has been fenced off and the School District is still deciding what to do next.

Clearwater Heights

Red square shows a vacant lot that once was the site of an African-American cemetery.

100 S Missouri Ave., Clearwater
The Times continued with its coverage of the Zion story, emboldening people whose suspicions had fallen on deaf ears to contact reporter Guzzo. There once was an African-American cemetery in the old Clearwater Heights neighborhood, people told him. It had no known name and doesn’t appear on maps or in city directories, but these former neighborhood residents recall the burial of loved ones and neighbors there in the early 20th century. Today, the property is an empty field that’s part of a staffing company’s campus. The local NAACP is meeting with the former residents about further research.

College Hill Cemetery

Map from the early 1900s shows sections of the Italian Club Cemetery, still in operation. At bottom left is a vacant lot once labeled “Colored Peoples’ Cemetery.”

E 24th Avenue and N 26th Street, Tampa
For 20 years, Guzzo had heard whispers about a forgotten burial grounds on the outskirts of Ybor City – College Hill Cemetery, maybe somewhere near the Italian Club Cemetery. The new attention from the Zion Cemetery coverage spurred a Tampa woman to go looking in the area for a great uncle’s missing grave and she asked Guzzo for help. The two threads converged when USF turned up two maps – and an 80-year-old federal cemetery list provided directions to College Hill Cemetery. It appears to be a now-vacant lot inside the sprawling Italian Club Cemetery. More than 100 obituaries identify the final resting place of the deceased as College Hill Cemetery, an early-20th century burial ground for Cubans and African-Americans.

Port Tampa Cemetery

Red square shows where the Port Tampa Cemetery might have been located, at northern edge of MacDill Air Force Base.

Interbay Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, Tampa
A forgotten African-American cemetery was long rumored to be located somewhere near Port Tampa, the neighborhood that arose around the city’s former commercial port. The renewed attention to cemeteries prompted Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center, a key source in reporter Guzzo’s coverage, to seek and find a Port Tampa Cemetery on the old federal cemeteries list. Kite-Powell informed the current owners of the land – MacDill Air Force Base. MacDill plans to search the property in early 2020.

May-Stringer House Cemetery

Red square shows where a plantation cemetery might have been located. Today, it’s downtown Brooksville.

601 Museum Court, Brooksville
The May-Stringer House now used by the Hernando Heritage Museum has long been rumored to be haunted. Now, museum staff contends there is also a cemetery on their land. It dates to the property’s days as part of a 160-acre plantation. The cemetery includes four members of the May family who built the house and the remains of as many as 56 enslaved people who worked the land. The staff has long wondered where the cemetery might be and reached out to the Tampa Bay Times with its plans to finally pursue the answer. They hope to contract archaeologists in 2020.

Unnamed Clearwater African-American Cemetery

Red square shows a vacant lot that once was the site of an African-American cemetery. A vacant public school is to the left.

The corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street, Clearwater
Records indicate that in 1954, the remains of some 350 people were moved from the cemetery to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin to make way for a city pool and new school. Still, the Clearwater NAACP is calling for a survey of the property, now site of a vacant school campus owned by the Pinellas County School District. The NAACP says unmarked graves would have been left behind. Archaeologists with the University of South Florida might search the property in 2020.

Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery

An African-Cemetery was located somewhere within the area colored in red. The red circle is a lake where headstones may lie.

9201 Gunn Hwy., Odessa
This burial ground for African-Americans was located on what is today a horse ranch. Former residents of the area and longtime parishioners from the neighboring Mt. Pleasant AME Church say the cemetery established in the early 1900s had 50 to 75 marked graves plus an unknown number of unmarked burials. It disappeared in the 1950s. Carolyn Wilson, who owns that land today, agrees that the cemetery is likely still there and will allow archaeologists to search for it in 2020.

Estuary Cemetery

Black square shows where graves were found during construction of the Water Street Tampa project downtown.

Channelside Drive and Meridian Avenue, Tampa
In September 2018, even before the Zion Cemetery revelation, preliminary archaeological work on the $3 billion Water Street project downtown found human remains in three grave shafts from an 1830s-era burial ground. Developers Strategic Property Partners have refused to comment on the identity of the remains, but state records show the company has met with two potential cemetery stakeholders — the Army and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Continuing coverage

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