EDIT: Thank everyone for participating and asking questions. If you have more questions, email me at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]) and follow me @PGuzzoTimes for further reports on Zion Cemetery.

We are Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo and photographer James Borchuck.

We spent nine months seeking answers about Tampa’s first African-American burial ground – Zion Cemetery. How was it erased from this city’s history? And what happened to those once interred there?

Between 1913 and 1920, 382 people were buried in Zion, according to our research.

A cemetery historian claims he found 747 death certificates for Zion.

Travel to Zion now and you'll see restaurant trucks and apartments. In December 1923, the Tampa Times called Zion one of the city's "most prominent and greatly used burial places." That didn't stop developers. In November 1951, as construction was underway on the Robles Park housing project, crews unearthed three caskets from Zion, but there was no further search of the property for more remains. After that, Zion was never publicly discussed again.

During our search, we pored over tens of thousands of records dating back over a century. We still can't find the bodies.

Since our initial article was published, the city has partnered with the University of South Florida and the two owners of the former Zion land – the Tampa Housing Authority and Richard Gonzmart – to find out if more graves are there. That search will include ground penetrating radar.

Two state senators have also announced they will draft a bill to find and protect African American cemeteries throughout Florida.

Here’s the story.



PROOF: https://twitter.com/PGuzzoTimes/status/1149673543841353730

Comments: 955 • Responses: 113  • Date: 

CoolPaleontologist33155 karma

How the hell did you find out that all these bodies were missing? How did no one realize this before?

PaulGuzzo4374 karma

We wrote a story a year ago on a local man who spends his retirement looking through death certificates to ID who is buried in mass graves in the county's potter's field. He mentioned he kept find death certificates for a cemetery called Zion that he'd never heard of. We looked into it and found it was Tampa's first African American cemetery. That seemed like a story. But we quickly realized that we could not ID where the bodies went. And the search began.

Liitke1519 karma

Although this is rather horrible, I imagine it must be kind of fun trying to solve the puzzle.

PaulGuzzo2535 karma

Everyone involved in our research was energized. It's not just that bodies were lost but no one had ever heard of the cemetery. That chapter had been ripped from Tampa history books. So to not just retell history but actually rediscover it - such as who built it and owned it - was exciting.

ReubenZWeiner574 karma

Have any of you met with the descedents? Any stories?

PaulGuzzo1114 karma

So a former Zion neighbor contacted us after the initial report came out - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/.

Sadly no descendants have reached out to us. We are now working with genealogists to find some but that is not something that will be turned around quickly.

baiser609 karma

As an amateur genealogist, this was my first question! If you're ever looking for volunteers to search, let us know! r/genealogy would have a field day with this.

PaulGuzzo500 karma

email me at [email protected]

northforthesummer67 karma

This is an awesome story and I really hope the sub tags in and helps! I strongly suggest pulling you email out of this though, the internet can be a weird place sometimes.

PaulGuzzo345 karma

It is my newspaper email address and should be public. It's how I get story tips. The internet is no stranger than Ybor City on a Friday night. :)

Metabro184 karma

This should be a pretty high priority.

Not listening to the descendents in the 1950s was the root cause. It's not like this was some big mystery for them. They lived it. They just weren't given the agency to protect the remains of their family members. Shaping the story as some big mystery is a white centric viewpoint.

Don't want to keep making the same mistakes by keeping the families out of it today.

PaulGuzzo273 karma

Yes. Today's Housing Authority is innocent but the leaders in 1951 should have done due diligence rather than taking the city's word for it. What is disturbing is if the woman who once lived next door was correct and the bodies were moved in 1933 - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/ then why in 1951 did the city say bodies were moved in 1925? IT's like they just threw a random date out there with little care.

Forseriousnow97 karma

Who's to say bodies were ever moved at all, minus the ones that absolutely had to be?

PaulGuzzo137 karma

Nothing. We'll learn more in the coming year as archaeologists look into the land.

Metabro25 karma


PaulGuzzo34 karma


-Is_This_Seat_Taken2 karma

EDIT: Ignore me. I re-red the article and realize this wouldn't make sense.

Is it possible that the lady remembered the date wrong, and that 1925 in the city's records is a typo that was supposed to read 1952 ?

It would have been recorded with a typewriter in those days. Harder to correct mistakes, and the person typing it in, could have thought it would never become an issue, or that their mistake would be easily recognizable and perhaps corrected later.

PaulGuzzo20 karma

The three caskets were found during construction in 1951. So the city could not have meant 1952. And I asked if she was mistaken about 1933 and it could have been 1925. But she was born in 1923. That would have made her two in 1925. She was confident she was 10. We tested her knowledge by looking up neighbors and businesses in old phone books and quizzing her. She remembered everything.

infrequentia82 karma

Please tell me at some point a member of the team said with great passion, "WE FOUND ZION."

PaulGuzzo123 karma

When we found a map confirming Zion existed I might have pumped my fist.

bobthechipmonk79 karma

African American history ripped from the books? Nothing new here.

PaulGuzzo70 karma

sadly you are correct.

moorph3us59 karma

This calls to mind Seneca Village aka Central Park. I’m sure one could make an entire career out of AA pages that have been ripped from history.. and ever since I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area I believe that there’s more history than the Riverwalk can stretch. Plenty of areas in the bay bear the structural remains of redlining and blockbusting.

Thank you for stumbling across this and using your reporting and research talents to help others. Truly heroic

PaulGuzzo30 karma

Hey thanks for reading and taking the time to reach out!

BoxBeast195880 karma

I just want to say thank you for this work u/PaulGuzzo

Many blessings 💜🙏🕊

PaulGuzzo39 karma

Thank you.

ninjamike80877 karma

Have you heard about the black cemeteries in Denton county, Texas? They essentially sold the land and haphazardly moved everything and everyone in the black community to the far edge of the county.

PaulGuzzo57 karma

I have not heard of that but am interested in learning more. Thanks!

secretaltacc-5 karma


PaulGuzzo3 karma

I cover history and culture for the paper. To not just retell but rediscover lost history is what originally drew me to this story. We didn't learn the bodies were lost until after our research began.

AngierCutterBorden524 karma

What do you think the chances are of USF getting involved in searching for these lost graves? They've done work searching for graves at the Dozier Boys school in north Florida and it seems their resources could be used in this situation.

PaulGuzzo514 karma

The same team looking for the Dozier graves has agreed to lead this search.

-SmackMyBitchUp-102 karma

This is amazing, you, your team, all involved, and the college are doing great work!

PaulGuzzo71 karma

Thank you.

PaulGuzzo146 karma

We will be writing the story on USF's process next week. Follow me at @PGuzzoTimes for updates as they come.

charina9123 karma

Followed. This is a wild story. I hope the lost will be found.

PaulGuzzo95 karma

Me too. I'll remain optimistic. I know the "sexy" ending would be if they find hundreds of graves on the property. I prefer the boring G-rated ending where we find them perfectly relocated to a forgotten cemetery on the outskirts of town.

AgonyInTheIrony59 karma

I grew up in Hernando and have been following this story for a while now. The G rated version appeals to me more than yet another story of desecrated remains in the south. :/

PaulGuzzo41 karma


JuliaDD324 karma

Where do you think the bodies went? Just destroyed by the developers? And how did nobody say anything at the time? If developers came in and tried to build apartments in my moms grave I would raise hell.

PaulGuzzo409 karma

Here is a follow up we wrote after a former neighbor read the first report:


So we know some were moved but in an archaic manner.

As for why no one would step in - scared of the white establishment or the families of those buried had left the area are theories.

We have no idea yet where they might have gone. The search continues. But this is a lot of bodies to be missing without records.

phin0311185 karma

The way these times were...I wouldn't be surprised if you determined there was a mass grave established nearby (likely with 10-20 miles.. considering the advancements in transportation, but still wanting to be discreet). Thank you for this... seriously. We need to learn from our mistakes and hiding them voids that notion.

PaulGuzzo179 karma

That is a theory for sure. There is a county potter's field just a few miles from it. Supposedly there are thousands of unidentified remains. So, they could be there. But we have not yet found a record of a mass re-burial.

phin0311102 karma

Honestly, considering the "times", I would be surprised if there was much documentation beyond what you've uncovered. Some documentation makes it look like work was done, but we've (folks like you) have gotten better and better at poking and prodding to get to the details. America has a tattered past (present?), especially when it comes to race and other forms of bigotry. Whatever could fit under the rug was probably swept as much as possible, the documentation available was probably done out of necessity.

But this is just me opining...no facts or evidence reviewed. Again, thank you for all you do.

PaulGuzzo97 karma

Thank you. I remain optimistic. Nearly everyone we have worked with on this story echoes your sentiments. But I keep hoping someone will send me a selfie of themselves in a cemetery with 800 graves moved from Zion.

phin031140 karma

The world is a magical place...stranger things have happened! I look forward to the continuation of your research and story!

PaulGuzzo24 karma

Thank you.

mdyguy16 karma

Is there a chance a developer just dumped the bodies into a construction dumpster, sent it to the dump, mixed in with everything else? It seems to me like a unscrupulous developer wouldn't have a problem doing that. Or maybe just dug the remains deeper down?

PaulGuzzo22 karma

Sadly anything is possible. As the history center's curator said, we have to start thinking in terms of a mass grave somewhere.

JuliaDD3 karma

Interesting read, thanks.

PaulGuzzo13 karma

Thanks for reading. Please keep following the story. Updates to come.

whatwhat0808246 karma

Would these Graves have markers/tombstones?

Near by individuals may happen to stumble across a stone marker.

PaulGuzzo397 karma

Yeah that's been a popular question. How many African Americans in the early 1900s could afford proper tombstones? One cemetery historian said she'd estimate that 20% of the graves would have something made of stone that could survive harsh conditions. Others would have wood or none.

msingler131 karma

Have you asked the woman who remembers the cemetery about any recollection of grave markers?

PaulGuzzo228 karma

Yes, she remembers markers - a mix of flat and standing. She didn't recall there being hundreds though. BUT, the cemetery had shrunk by the time she was born. The portion along Florida Ave and some land had already been developed. SO, there were multiple occasions for bodies to be moved. That also means there should be multiple records.

UnsprungMass99 karma

I remember in recent years that scientists have used NASA satellite data to find never-before discovered (or long lost) ancient ruins. I wonder if someone could target suspected areas and perhaps catch a glimpse of such graves using the same data. IIRC, this might have been infra-red of some sort. Perhaps it would let you see a pattern of grave markers that are no longer visible due to years of overgrowth.

PaulGuzzo146 karma

So GRP can tell then what is under the ground. Aerial lidar can look at surface deformities to tell if graves might be there. Follow me @PGuzzoTimes. Next week I will be writing about those techniques and how they will be used to search for Zion.

PaulGuzzo66 karma

Sorry ... GPR

TheUltimateSalesman39 karma

Were these bodies in boxes when they were buried? Concrete crypts? Probably not. Were there embalming chemicals used? If none of these, how long does it take for a body to disintegrate? Would the developers have known they were in a grave field? Or maybe they didn't even realize?

PaulGuzzo72 karma

https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/ According to the former neighbor in that article she did not witness coffins being moved. Just bones. Historians tell us African Americans in that era might not have been able to afford coffins so many used shrouds.

Follow me @PGuzzoTimes please for updates. Next week I am writing about how GRP can answer those last questions.

TheUltimateSalesman28 karma

Historians tell us African Americans in that era might not have been able to afford coffins so many used shrouds.

Sounds like they pulled a Poltergeist.

PaulGuzzo30 karma

Well a neighbor reached out to us every the initial story published and said she saw some moved - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/

But what she recalled sounded archaic. And experts tell us the removal should have taken months, even a year. She said it took weeks.

FrankieP_da_real_OG115 karma

Wow this is amazing and horrible at the same time. Thank you for your hard work. I live in Sarasota and would like to follow along as you continue this search, will there be regular articles in the Times updating this?

PaulGuzzo78 karma

Whenever we have an update there will be a story. Next week we will document how the physical search will go and we are working with genealogists to find descendants. Best bet is to follow me on twitter @PGuzzoTimes to look for updates when they come.

JustAGuyInTampa105 karma

As a Tampa native, thank you for your hard work in figuring out this mystery!

PaulGuzzo39 karma

Thank you for reading. Followups are coming.

JustAGuyInTampa28 karma

Tampa has a very unique past, especially regarding the Columbia restaurant. Can’t wait to read the follow ups.

PaulGuzzo16 karma


ReadontheCrapper100 karma

Correct me if I’m wrong but, isn’t Tampa an area where basements are rare, even for commercial buildings? Since you are doing geophys it sounds like there is a possibility that many of the gravesites weren’t moved, but just built over?

PaulGuzzo80 karma

That is unfortunately possible. The woman who saw some moved - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/ - said it took weeks.

Experts we have since spoken with have said it should have taken months or even a year.

ReadontheCrapper38 karma

That is so incredibly sad, and awful. I know the argument would be that ‘it was the times’ however I can’t see how it was acceptable even then, nor would it have happened to a whites only cemetery.

It’s good work you all are doing. Thank you

PaulGuzzo104 karma

There was a white cemetery one block over. It was moved in 1926 to make way for development. There are records and news stories from that year confirming it. Yet, we have not found anything on Zion's move.

Suwannee_Gator13 karma

The downtown area’s been growing a lot, of I’m not mistaken, it’s not uncommon for construction crews to find unmarked graves.


PaulGuzzo31 karma

Not uncommon BUT even in the case of that old Seminole-era cemetery there were enough known records that it existed that the developers knew to look out for it. Zion had been forgotten.

StupidizeMe100 karma

Do you believe that what happened to Zion Cemetery - a minority cemetery being deliberately ignored, developed and forgotten - also happened in other US states?

We know about the Boy's School in Florida which was shockingly recent, but I wonder if this was actually a common way to deal with the inconvenient dead.

Thank you for working so hard to right this wrong.

PaulGuzzo130 karma

One expert on finding lost African American cemeteries told us 31 have been found throughout the country since 2010. In 1991, African American graves were discovered 24 feet below the ground during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Manhattan. In Newburgh, NY in 2017, a school was being converted into a courthouse when workers found African American graves severed by underground utility lines.

jessikatz72 karma

There is a grave site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where they had paved a road over what they now believe to be the grave site of colonial slaves.

PaulGuzzo59 karma

Sadly it is very common we have discovered.

jessikatz25 karma

I was shocked when I learned about it. Didn't realize it has happened throughout the US and in Florida as well. I'm glad you are writing about Zion.

PaulGuzzo15 karma

Thank you.

StupidizeMe29 karma

Have you or any states considered creating a website where people can enter in the details of old forgoten cemeteries they know about?

I didn't know about Newburgh! My Grandmother's 1850 summer house was in the next tiny village, and because I spent summers there I visited the beautiful late 1600s stone houses in Newburgh many times. The area was actually settled in the 1620s. Wow, how fascinating.

PaulGuzzo19 karma

Tons of great articles on it if you google it.

EJ8814 karma

24 feet? Why so deep?

PaulGuzzo47 karma

Dirt gets added by time, mother nature and developers and graves sink.

floridafan22372 karma

This must have been a challenging story to report. What do you think was one of the biggest challenges you encountered in the reporting process and how did you deal with it?

PaulGuzzo163 karma

GREAT QUESTION! Finding the chain of ownership. Deed records are listed in two separate books – one by buyer and another by purchaser. So you need a name to start with. We knew H.P. Kennedy developed the land in 1929 so he was our first starting point. He led us to Alice Fuller who sold it to him, but then a dead end. We could not find who she purchased it from. BUT, we also knew that in 1912 J.J. Head was in a court battle with the cemetery owners. Head said he owned the tax deed. The article did not cite the owners by name. It only said they were black. The 1901 map of the cemetery filed with the County Clerk’s Office included its legal coordinates. SO, in newspapers.com that has digitized newspapers dating back to the 1800s, I searched for J.J. Head and the legal coordinates for the year 1912. That brought to the legal notice for the court date for the cemetery dispute and it included the owner name – Florida Industrial and Commercial Company. We then went back to the clerk’s office were able to find out who they purchased it from – Richard Doby, which was a HUGE “ah ha” moment because he is among the most important historic figures for Tampa as an early African American developer.

floridafan22338 karma

Thank you. It's fascinating to get an inside look behind the scenes.

PaulGuzzo51 karma

Thanks for reading and taking interest. It was a reader who started this search when he found Zion death certificates!

not_superiority10 karma

i am so happy that ya'll could find the real estate records! my county's records are spotty at best and poorly kept. i imagine that humidity and frequent hurricanes don't help anything when you're looking for a single sheet of paper from +/- 100 years ago

PaulGuzzo11 karma

I remain aggravated that we have a gap from 1915-1926 though.

not_superiority5 karma

Fucking hurricanes and poor record keeping! My county's records are thin (not entirely gone, just thin) around 1900 because of the hurricane destroyed Galveston. I rarely have to look up anything from that period, but it's a nightmare when I have to.

PaulGuzzo9 karma

In the Tampa Bay area, government bodies always say there was a fire that destroyed whatever we need from the early 1900s.

Infectious_Laugher28 karma

There's a segregated cemetery where I live in Volusia County dating back to 1929 and the landowner is wanting to have the bodies exhumed against the will of the surviving family members' wishes. Many of the graves have already been vandalized and the city, county, and Department of Cemetery services have refused to do anything about it.

How does one go about fixing this issue? How did you begin your investigation to make a change?

namnam011157825 karma

Hi! The Tampa Times has been releasing amazing pieces lately. I also read on about kids going on joyrides. Thank you for the hard work. As for my question: What changes do you think are necessary to prevent this from happening again?

PaulGuzzo29 karma

Well, laws are in place now to prevent cemeteries from being disrespected. There is also legislation being introduced to protest such cemeteries:


thxxx133724 karma

What is the most outlandish theory you've heard so far?

PaulGuzzo50 karma

Honestly, nothing outlandish yet. Most we have worked with on this remain practical in their thinking. We know some were moved. A woman stepped up after the initial report - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/.

But the question remains if they were all moved or just some. Archaeologists are confident that a full survey of the land will turn up graves. Three were discovered during construction in 1951. "You don't forget just three," is the popular phrase I hear from experts.

stat1stick24 karma

Where could they have gone? How did no one notice the bodies being removed?

PaulGuzzo46 karma

The where is the million dollar question we are hoping to answer. Here is a followup about a woman who saw some moved in an archaic manner: https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/

By the middle of next year it is hoped that the land will be surveyed by archaeologists to see if remains are still there.

mactheattack221 karma

As a Tampan (Tamponian? Tampanite? Did we ever settle this debate?), How hard was it to work with the local governments to get the information needed? How hard was it to find the documents you were searching for? Did anyone ever give you any trouble?

Also, thank you for all that you do. I read this article when it came out and thought it was very thought-provoking and interesting. You all are doing great work!

PaulGuzzo29 karma

Thanks! So all bodies of government were great! The city sent us pdfs of minutes of city council minutes from that era. The county clerk's employees were looking through records even when we were not there. The history center, USF and everyone cited in the story fell into the Zion rabbithole with us

mactheattack214 karma

This is awesome! As a student of USF, I'm proud that they are taking this as an opportunity. Thanks again for all you do!

PaulGuzzo6 karma

Welcome and thank you to USF!

thegreatgazoo20 karma

I thought funeral plots were basically all individual land titles, and just clearing then was a real estate nightmare. How'd they pass a title search to be able to sell the land and build on it?

PaulGuzzo21 karma

Great question! So we searched through deed records because each plot should have been recorded. But we found none. IT was the early 1900s and for much of the time Zion existed it was beyond city limits, which might explain why.

as for the other question - that is the billion dollar question that me might unfortunately never know the answer to.

FS_Slacker18 karma


PaulGuzzo18 karma

That is a common reaction. :)

paavam_godfather15 karma

What do you people believe is the foremost cause for such secrecy Like racism is an obvious cause but a cemetery once created being hidden requires lot of effort? Any other cause as such?

PaulGuzzo43 karma

If the bodies were not moved, it is because they were African American and considered second class citizens. If they were moved and no records were made of where they went, it is because they were African Americans and considered second class citizens.

BUT, it remains a possibility that they were moved and the records were lost and there is nothing nefarious about this.

Yes, this is common unfortunately. Since 2010, 31 lost African American cemeteries have been found and 16 of those during construction.

_koshak_13 karma

What's average age of them? Were they especially young or old? What the worst bodies with changes you'd ever found? Describe please.

PaulGuzzo27 karma

Ages varied from newborns to senior citizens. If I had to guess off the top of my head, 15-20 percent were newborns. Around 20 percent of those whose death certificates the Times located were born before the end of the Civil War in 1865, either in Florida or another southern state.

Purplekeyboard13 karma

Isn't this pretty much what happens to all cemetaries in heavily populated areas in the long run?

No city has room for an endlessly expanding perpetual cemetery, so eventually the bodies are dug up and dumped who knows where, or the cemetery is just built over.

I assume this is expected and normal in any old city in Europe.

PaulGuzzo14 karma

Yes, it happened to others as the city grew. In 1926, the all white Catholic Cemetery a block from Zion was moved to make way for development. But there are ample records showing the bodies were taken to Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Tampa.

Cemeteries will always be getting moved. But there should be records.

GotDatFromVickers4 karma

Have you been to Spring Hill Cemetery? Apparently there was a courthouse fire in 1872 that destroyed many of the records. Could you give any advice on how to research something like this? There are headstones there with names like Mr. Jimbo. How do you research those without a surname? Given how rare African American cemeteries are, do you think owners of the different cemeteries may have information on each other?

PaulGuzzo6 karma

Thanks for the tip! Can you email me about this - [email protected]

StupidizeMe12 karma

Have you been following the destruction of US Civil War Battlefields and burials by land developers?

Many soldiers who died during battle were buried on the spot by their friends, who probably expected to come back some day and bring them home. No one ever thought the war would last for 4 years, or that so many would die.

Once the little wooden cross and name marker was gone, the graves were at the mercy of the elements. Developers bulldozing old Battlefields to put in strip malls often destroy these soldiers' graves.

You give your life for your country and your state, and end up under a parking lot.

Do you think the use of ground penetrating radar could prevent this?

PaulGuzzo16 karma

Yes, if the land was identified and the community spoke up.

WillbeonFrasersridge11 karma

You mentioned when you found Zion, it had been erased from history books. Now that you know it's location, will it be added back into the history books? And as you discover more information about it, will the information continue to be added?

PaulGuzzo25 karma

That is the hope. Since the Tampa Bay History Center did so much work on this along with us, I expect them to keep the story going.

Metum_Chaos9 karma

Is there some place where I can find a timeline of such events? I'm working on a research project that involves incorporating events into a software for legal/investigative purposes.

PaulGuzzo10 karma

If you mean stories on ALL cemeteries. Email me at [email protected] and I can send you records when I get a chance.

el_osoalto9 karma

I've got a bit more of a question regarding journalism as a whole.

Being a journalism major, I have been exposed to a variety of different areas to gain experience, such as writing to social media to podcasting and everything in between.

As someone who is trying to put myself in the best position for a strong summer internship, what are some of the most important qualities that you see within the interns/younger staff of the TBT?


PaulGuzzo21 karma

All our interns are MUCH better writers than I am. :) I can say personally that what as kept me employed for 20 years in this industry is work ethic.

ICallThisBullshit7 karma

How are you on this fine day?

PaulGuzzo28 karma

Tired. The door to our screened in porch broke and a raccoon has been sneaking into the porch. So our cat who usually sleeps on that porch had to be brought inside last night and she cried at the door all night to get out.

Thanks for asking.

nopeno1234566 karma

Any evidence that this is happening in other communities or in different parts of the country?

PaulGuzzo16 karma

It is sadly not rare. In 1991, African American graves were discovered 24 feet below the ground during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Manhattan. In Newburgh, NY in 2017, a school was being converted into a courthouse when workers found African American graves severed by underground utility lines. An expert on this issue told us 31 lost African American cemeteries have been discovered since 2010, 16 of which were found during construction.

han_dies_015 karma

The Times has not independently verified Reed’s findings, but he listed the 747 names on the findagrave.com website under Zion and attached scans of some of the death records for evidence.

I'm an archaeologist, and I can tell you that we tend to be skeptical of amateur historians. They often take records at face value, and fail to consider alternative explanations.

For example, cemeteries in the same area often have the same or similar names. Internet websites like findagrave.com aren't necessarily ground truthed. And people can also just be mistaken.

Beyond the claims of the person referenced above, is there any other evidence that there are potentially hundreds of "missing" bodies?

Because in your responses, and in the articles, I don't actually see any solid evidence that there are any actual bodies beyond the 382 you mention specifically. Are you certain that these aren't internet ghosts?

PaulGuzzo7 karma

We personally found 382 death certificates for Zion.

_koshak_5 karma

What you thought finding more and more bodies?

PaulGuzzo13 karma

We didn't know what to expect when we began this search. As James and I started looking through death certificates and the number began to grow from dozens to hundreds, we were shocked.

h_word3 karma

Seriously thank you for doing this. Do you find many people think this is sad or is it just as looked over as it has been historically?

PaulGuzzo5 karma

More sad. I have been shocked at the response. Personally, I got so involved in the research and fell so deep into the rabbit hole that toward the end I became disconnected to the human side of the story.

ElliotNess3 karma

A comment on the story at TBT site posted a day ago claims she knows the location where the graves were moved. Have you followed up with her?

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Yes. I looked into that cemetery during our research. Archaeologists in the past have said around 40 unidentified bodies are there. SO perhaps a few were moved there but it seems unlikely a mass reburial took place. But I will look further into it.

Ich-parle3 karma

There's a comment on that first link (The Tampa Bay times article) saying the poster knows of a location where they were reburied - have you followed up with that at all?

PaulGuzzo11 karma

Yes. I looked into that cemetery during our research. It is believed there are only 40 identified bodies there. Zion had between 382 - 747. Plus it is only an acre, so likely not large enough. And that was a long drive to make on sandy roads.

BUT, I will look further into it. Perhaps a few were moved there.

msingler2 karma

Your article about the 96 year old woman referenced 13 graves that were confirmed to be moved to two separate cemeteries. Do you know when they were moved? Have you tried getting in touch with the descendents of the people who were moved to see if they have any details about why or when they were moved?

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Yes we have and no luck yet. And it was 10 that were moved. The other three were found in 1951 during construction on that property. The city does have records of the three moved to city property that they recently pulled for us. Only one has its reburial date - 1918. So it seems that person was moved years before the cemetery disappeared. My GUESS is that Zion was filling up and the family wanted room for a family plot.

mcmonkeycat2 karma

Around how many people in the surrounding community have been interviewed so far? Younger people might have a vague knowledge along the lines of "I know my great grandfather was buried in the area". Lots of the time family history is at least partially passed down even if the name and exact location is erased.

PaulGuzzo9 karma

Besides MS. Massey - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/ - not one recalls a thing.

We spoke to the grandson of a pastor for a church on that ground and even he never heard of Zion.

It is one of the craziest things I have come upon as a journalist who covered Tampa history. An entire chapter was ripped from Tampa's history book.

secretaltacc2 karma

Why do I get the feeling no one would give a shit if they were white? I mean not to be so gruesome but...they're dead. It's been this long and no one noticed, why make such a big deal about it other than the fact that they were slaves? Usually I see comments on Reddit like "Hell who cares, once I'm dead just throw me in the wood chipper" buuuut because of the slave aspect for some reason we should act differently..?

PaulGuzzo1 karma

Whether they were black or white we would have followed this story. Hundreds of bodies missing is a big deal regardless of the color. BUT, the fact that they were African Americans during such a racist period in US history cannot be ignored.

secretaltacc1 karma

Who said anyone was ignoring it? It simply faded away like most things in history. Maybe no one wanted to focus on how poorly blacks were treated and then you go bringing it all rushing back at a time when tensions between whites and blacks are back to an all time high in the states. All you're doing is further pushing a wedge into America. No one will ever heal if everyday someone finds something to shove into the news spotlight that basically results in "LOOK HOW BAD AND RACIST WHITE PEOPLE BE BACK THEN"

Should we ignore our history? No. Are Americans really ever going to forget slavery if we don't have people yelling at us, reminding us about it every 5 minutes? No.

PaulGuzzo1 karma

“Their story needs to be told,” said Fred Hearns, a local historian who leads a downtown walking tour. “African-American history is American history.”

hackel2 karma

Why are you making this out to be a bad thing? What is terrible is not that it happened, but that it isn't happening to every cemetery, particularly ones containing predominantly white corpses. All cemeteries are a blight on our land and cities. What happened to this cemetery undoubtedly had racist motives and those responsible should be held accountable, however it also should be a model for how to deal with ALL cemeteries and reclaim that land for three use of the LIVING.

PaulGuzzo5 karma

In 1926 the all white cemetery a block over was moved. There are records of news stories documenting the process and to where. We have not found any for Zion. Cemeteries are moved all the time for development. But usually there is an easy to find paper trail.

Qwirk2 karma

Any idea of the cut off between last buried and transition to development? Were people being buried one week then developed over the next?

PaulGuzzo6 karma

The last death certificate we found was for 1920. Development on Florida Ave came in 1929 and the cemetery was supposedly moved in 1933.

LongBeachfortyfive1 karma

How possible is it that a portion of the bodies/caskets were disrupted/moved by flood/hurricane? I’ve been to Tampa a few times but can’t recall much about it. If the sea level is similarly low to the rest of the state, wouldn’t water levels rising and falling for decades destabilize the ground? I’d like to think it’s something easily explainable and not malicious or sneaky, but somehow I doubt that’s the case.

PaulGuzzo3 karma

When archaeologists do their thing in the coming months they will be able to answer that question. I will be writing about that they can learn next week. Follow me on twitter @PGuzzoTimes for that story.

It could be nothing nefarious at all. The graves could be somewhere in a long forgotten cemetery on the outskirts of town and the records were lost. That is why we are still looking through records.

LongBeachfortyfive0 karma

Good luck! I hope it’s nothing shady. Thanks for answering!

PaulGuzzo1 karma


Sigma353611 karma

Is it at all possible that this is the origin of saying someone deceased has "Gone to Zion" rather than referencing the biblical Zion that never really made sense to me?

Even though eventually lost to history, how famous was this cemetery to Black people then?

PaulGuzzo1 karma

A 1923 article in the Tampa Tribune referred to is as one of the city's most used cemeteries. It was founded by Richard Doby, one of Tampa's most important African American historic figures. And it was for 18 years the ONLY large scale all-African American burial ground. Other than Zion, they were relegated to small sections in the city cemeteries or family plot.

alphamav1 karma

Where is the future of ritualistic corpse storage going? Are we going to start using cemetery land for community gardens? That would get the graves visited more often and make use of open space.

PaulGuzzo2 karma

The Housing Authority that owns the apartments on the former Zion land is open to building a memory garden when they redevelop that land in the coming years.

jahlove241 karma

I live not too far from the area. Do you think that there will ever be a formal excavation? Robles park is a bad area as most of Tampa knows I'm not sure how that would go over...

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Ultimately that will be up to the land owners, the churches whose parishioners were buried there and the descendants if any come forward.

I'll be covering that topic next week. Follow me @PGuzzoTimes for updates.

i_cannot_believeu1 karma

Who the fuck cares? Congrats on wasting your time

PaulGuzzo1 karma

Thanks for reading and taking the time to write.

Free2MAGA1 karma

Okay. This is gonna sound the way I don't want it to sound, but I would like an answer and I will keep following this story, buuuuuuuut how does any of this matter? Like not in a snarky way, but genuinely.

PaulGuzzo3 karma

It's not just that the remains of as many as 800 African American pioneers of Tampa are missing, but so was a big chapter in Tampa's history book. This was the city's first African American cemetery yet no one knew of it. Plus: “Their story needs to be told,” said Fred Hearns, a local historian who leads a downtown walking tour. “African-American history is American history.”

TermEdd1 karma

Are there any local archaeological organizations that are going to be working on the project such as FPAN or USF Anthr?

PaulGuzzo4 karma

Yes USF will be leading the search. Follow me @PGuzzoTimes and next week you will find my article on that process and those in charge.

Aturom1 karma

Where do you think all the bodies went?

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Billion dollar question. IF they were moved and IF there are no records, I'd guess the Potter's Field a few miles away. Supposedly there are thousands of unidentified remains there. But I am only speculating.

zombie93931 karma

So...has anyone done any kind of ground surveys in the area to find possible coffins, gravesites, etc?

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Follow me @PGuzzoTimes for a story next week on those efforts materializing. But in a nutshell - the University of South Florida is on it.

CityGirlSass1 karma

Has the ground penetrating radar been used yet? Have you found any more evidence that there are graves underneath the housing complex? I find this to be so fascinating albeit a disheartening tragedy.

If you’re familiar with Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL (also a prominent African American Cemetery) they have had a similar past of missing bodies and inhumane practices.

PaulGuzzo4 karma

So GPR will be brought to the property at some point. Follow me @PGuzzoTomes on twitter for a story next week on what those who will lead that search envision happening.

[deleted]1 karma


PaulGuzzo3 karma

I hear that a lot about this story ... and how I ended up with my wife.

sti-guy1 karma

Do you have a general idea on the size of the cemetery? Like how many acres?

PaulGuzzo2 karma

2.5 acres. Two of those acres were split into 98 sections that held as many as 8 graves a piece. Then there was a half acre potter's field for the poor and unidentified.

Cinamunch1 karma

Something similar happened in South FL specifically Deerfield Beach. The 'Old Colored Cemetery' I am baffled by the lack of knowledge of bodies being move. What do you hope comes of all this?

PaulGuzzo2 karma

I hope someone sends me a selfie of themselves in a cemetery with 800 perfectly moved graves from Zion.

AnnoyingVoid1 karma

Hey Paul! I heard you guys on PM Tampa Bay the other night and am fascinated with the story!

I was wondering when you guys plan on having the radar testing done on the site and what will the county have to do if they find out they are there?

Also, You guys had mentioned you interviewed a very sharp 90 year old woman who remembered the cemetery! Can you divulge some of her stories too?

PaulGuzzo1 karma

USF will bring radar there in the coming months. Follow me @PGuzzoTimes for next week's story when it comes out.

Here is the link to her story: https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/

TheKentuckyRifleman1 karma

Are you guys going to be involved in that dig at the Dozier school for boys?

PaulGuzzo2 karma

No. That is a different matter but the same USF archaeologists leading that mission will lead the search on Zion.

Follow me @PGuzzoTimes to see my story next week on that.

throwaway275459841 karma

What do you think of Armature Works?

PaulGuzzo6 karma

Before it was the current version, the old shell of a building used to be a popular spot to shoot indie films. I miss that version. :(

Eddy25550 karma

Were the bodies there in the first place? Maybe false certificates.

PaulGuzzo3 karma

Definitely not fake. After our first report a former neighbor stepped forward and confirmed the cemetery was there - https://www.tampabay.com/hillsborough/woman-96-recalls-placing-flowers-on-graves-before-zion-cemetery-disappeared-from-memory-20190626/

Plus when the land was sold in 1907, the new deed mentioned burial plots. And in 1923 a newspaper called it one of Tampa's most used cemeteries.

TheJerseyFlatline0 karma

Will there be any repercussions against those responsible for these missing bodies?

PaulGuzzo2 karma

We still don't know who was responsible. The problem with searching for 100-year-old records is that many are missing.

Epyon214-2 karma

Shouldn't we empty all cemeteries? Beyond that, shouldn't the outrage be focused on how this was a segregationist cemetery rather than that the land was reclaimed for the living?

PaulGuzzo22 karma

There was a need for an all African American cemetery. Two city cemeteries had black sections but they were not large enough for the growing city.

Skootenbeeten-2 karma

Don't graves get moved all the time? What is the big deal here?

PaulGuzzo2 karma

Usually there are records. The all white cemetery a block from Zion was moved in 1926. There were news reports on the move and records of where the bodies went.

[deleted]-2 karma


PaulGuzzo1 karma

Thanks for reading and taking the time to write.

Pikeman212a6c-3 karma

What is your favorite potato based side dish?

PaulGuzzo5 karma

Straight baked potato smothered in butter and enough salt to turn my cheeks red.

MacGyverMacGuffin-8 karma

Why should anyone care?

Burial of bodies in cities is a centuries-old problem. Just look at the history of Paris and how the catacombs came to be. Eventually, they need to be moved or otherwise disposed of to make room for development. They're not living humans with feelings. They're biowaste. It really shouldn't matter.

PaulGuzzo2 karma

The churches who once had a stake in the cemetery care about what happened to their former parishioners. Historians care about a piece of local history. Yes, many share your belief, but many don't. Personally, I expect to be cremated and left in my one of my kid's closets for eternity.

MacGyverMacGuffin-4 karma

Eternity? What arrogance. It'll be a century tops before no one alive remembers what, let alone who, your ashes were, and throws them away in a landfill.

PaulGuzzo0 karma

I envision my kids building a hiding spot in the closet and putting them there to spook out future homeowners. So it could be more than a century.