Hey, I'm Paul Guzzo, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. This summer, I discovered Zion Cemetery, Tampa's first all-black cemetery that was erased from city history. (Excited to be back for another AMA). 

That report sparked official searches for Zion's 800 bodies. It also caused the city and community to discuss how to best honor the dead, including closing the housing complex built on top. Ancestors demanded answers. State legislators drafted bills. It has been an emotional time.

I quickly found Zion wasn't the only cemetery to meet that fate. Most have been the final resting places for African Americans.

My reporting led to radar finding a paupers cemetery under a Tampa high school. Records show there could be a cemetery lost within another Tampa cemetery, a cemetery hidden under an empty lot in Clearwater, a cemetery under MacDill Air Force Base. A history museum's staffers are among people looking into hunches.

In late October, historians predicted more would be found. They're right.

Ask me anything.

Proof

Edit: Hey, it's a little after 2 p.m. and I need to run now. Sorry to cut this short, but I have to run for work. Thanks for all the interest and great conversations! You can follow me on Twitter or keep up with my cemetery work here.

Comments: 372 • Responses: 53  • Date: 

UnlikeClockwork409 karma

What's the main thing we wish to uncover by finding these cemeteries? Will there be excavations and DNA tests for ancestry and genealogy? They were hidden on purpose, do we know why other than just racism?

PaulGuzzo563 karma

That is ONE complicated question.

A popular opinion is simply lack of foresight. When the forefathers of Tampa developed it, they never imagined it would expand its boundaries to such a degree. SO, they built cemeteries on the outskirts. Then as the city grew, it touched the cemeteries and developers had to move those to make room for growth. The white cemeteries were properly moved. But the black ones seem to just have had their headstones picked up.

The purpose? Well, beyond spiritual, there is an economic reason. The state has strict laws about disturbing graves. So if you happen to buy land with a lost cemetery on it, you're pretty screwed. So identifying these so that the land doesn't continue to change hands until someone is ultimately left holding the purse is a necessity.

KatanaAmerica243 karma

What’s the mood in Tampa regarding these discoveries?

PaulGuzzo526 karma

Anger, shock, despair.

When they first announced that graves were found under the housing projects, it was a strange moment for me as a reporter.

On one hand I wanted to cheer. My reporting had been proven right!

But then I saw the hurt in the room. Tears flowed. People prayed. I've never experienced anything so powerfully sad. An entire room crying for the horrors their ancestors had to endure.

princelabia117 karma

What about the King HS find?

PaulGuzzo201 karma

Sadly, less shock. Almost felt like they expected it.

lapatria45 karma

Crazy how it was literally under the hood. Done on purpose ?

PaulGuzzo198 karma

We'll never know. People have opinions but I need to stick to the facts and unless we find a hand written note spelling out a nefarious plot, I'll keep saying, "We'll never know." Here is what we know for certain - Robles Park was originally for whites only and the community that was bulldozed for it was Robles Pond, which was a historic black community. But the cemetery had been gone for 30 years by then. BUT, they uncovered three caskets from Zion while building the project and did not do any due diligence to search for more.

BFeely13 karma

Is anyone, particularly in far-right circles, trying to claim it's a hoax?

PaulGuzzo145 karma

I don't know what the political leanings are, but there are "cemetery truthers" who tell me that the Tampa Bay Times is involved in a conspiracy to pretend black cemeteries were destroyed. The end game, they say, is to start a race war.

6fluidreality9185 karma

Have they tried this radar in South Saint Petersburg? I know around Lakewood Estates area there was a lot of stories I heard growing up as a kid about that area.

There is definitely an indian burial ground down in the pink streets, I know it's not the same but just another cool fact I thought I shared.

PaulGuzzo205 karma

Everything is the same! The focus has been on black burial grounds because there was a trend to erase them but we know their are Native Americans ones missing too. I don't personally have GPR so it is up to archaeologists to go looking. But I will look into this for records.

fikis82 karma

First off, thanks for your reporting. I love the work you guys are doing at The Times.

My question: What do you think should be done when these graves are discovered?

Like, say it's private property. What obligation does the landowner have to either not develop/remove development etc?

Who pays? Is this a local gov't issue? State?

I understand that you are simply bringing these issues to light and it'snot really your purview to decide how they're handled, but I imagine that you've heard discussions about what happens next, and I'm interested to know what you think.

Thanks!

PaulGuzzo80 karma

So landowners have two options - move the graves to another cemetery and develop the land or turn it back into a cemetery.

The first option is PRICEY. But there are grants available to reimburse the property owners if they decided to turn the land into a memorial site.

Yazon6933 karma

So landowners are responsible for the moving costs or does the government foot some of the bill?

PaulGuzzo64 karma

A bill is moving through the state senate that could help with the moving costs, but unfortunately most would fall on the owners.

fikis28 karma

I don't want to belabor this too much, but:

In your personal opinion, how SHOULD this work? If you're happy with the current policy (or current policy plus the bill you mention), cool.

If not, what changes would you implement as benevolent dictator of Central Florida?

PaulGuzzo131 karma

As a reporter on this story, I keep my opinions to myself and out of my work.

Sorry that I have to be so coy.

fikis97 karma

How dare you maintain journalistic standards. Appalling.

Thanks again for your work.

Keep it up.

PaulGuzzo58 karma

Thank you.

suaveknight15 karma

What happens to the places that have ALREADY been developed? Do they have to be abandoned if it turns out they were built over an old cemetery, unbeknownst to the landowner?

I suppose they could go back and sue whoever they acquired the land from, but pretty soon you have the estates of dead people suing the estates of other dead people...

PaulGuzzo37 karma

The law is that graves cannot be disturbed. No one can force anyone to knock down a building if it does not disturb graves. Robles Park, for instance, does not go down deep enough to disturb the graves. The Housing Authority could have kept the residents and buildings there.

The lawsuit issue, I have been told, is tricky. You'd have to prove that 100 years ago the property owner knowingly did this and then sue his or her descendants.

rspownz56 karma

Were these burial sites more prominent during slavery? Is there any way to tell?

PaulGuzzo74 karma

Zion and other black cemeteries were established in the years immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. African Americans homesteaded land and built churches, schools and cemeteries to serve the black community.

PaulGuzzo73 karma

During slavery, from what I am told, the enslaved were usually buried on plantations in Florida.

https://www.tampabay.com/news/hernando/2019/12/12/hernando-museum-is-haunted-staff-says-now-theyre-looking-for-a-cemetery-there/

No_Higgins50 karma

While I agree the gravesites should be documented, if all of the headstones have been moved or lost, what would be the point in having the current land owners relocate the graves? At that point wouldn’t all of the people be reburied as unknown? Wouldn’t it be a better plan to document the site and leave as is for the small chance that a family member might stumble upon a death record (or family book) stating a family member is there?

PaulGuzzo74 karma

That is up to the landowner. It is his or her property right to make that decision.

But, yes, we can never know who is where. A suggestion for Zion and Ridgewood is to erect a monument with the names of all those we know are buried there based on death records.

KosmicTom48 karma

You find anything under Raymond James Stadium? Sure would explain a lot...

PaulGuzzo52 karma

ha. There are rumors that Amalie is cursed by the old Native American burial ground that was once there. :)

sebelly34 karma

How do you think the history of racism and white supremacy in the Tampa Bay area has contributed to lost burial sites of African Americans? How many lost sites do you think there are across Florida?

PaulGuzzo83 karma

White cemeteries were properly moved because the white community had a seat at the political table.

African Americans in that era had no voice. They had no way to stop developers from destroying their cemeteries.

There are historians who tell me this had more to do with greed than racism. The developers would have done the same with white cemeteries if they could have gotten away with it. But when it came to black cemeteries, they could, so they did.

As for how many? I can't say for sure. But we've already two in Tampa and identified a few potentials. And this is just in one area.

8cuban54 karma

I would say that’s all about racism. Developers didn’t get away with it on white cemeteries because they were stopped by whites. The developers did get away with it on black cemeteries because the whites in power didn’t give a damn about the black citizens. The whites in power did not look after all their citizens like they swore to do. If that doesn’t define racism, I don’t know what does.

PaulGuzzo21 karma

If they built on the cemetery knowing bodies were still there, then, I agree.

whiteshaq5229 karma

What would happen to the owners of the housing complex? If they bought the graveyard land unknowingly how could you justify removing them from private property. Would the country commissioners just declare imminent domain?

PaulGuzzo54 karma

Only 5 of the 67 buildings are on the cemetery. Those residents are being moved to other public housing projects and all are happy to do so. Robles is an outdated housing project that was set to be redeveloped soon anyway,

LLLLLdLLL27 karma

Is there going to be any DNA testing too (if possible?)

Except for the above I honestly don't have any questions, since the articles you linked to were very comprehensive and well written. Mind blowing that you could just plop a building on top and that's it. Thank you for reporting on this!

PaulGuzzo38 karma

DNA testing would be pricey and complicated.

Instead, stakeholders are conducting genealogy searches for descendants to let them know family is buried in these cemeteries. But without any documents saying who is buried where, they will have to pay respects at the cemetery in general rather than a specific plot.

Vurnnun23 karma

Who tipped you to Zion? What did the tip that lead you to find Zion inform you? What other information were you able to accumulate? From who? Who did you contact to help you?

PaulGuzzo64 karma

Ray Reed initially tipped us off.

He is a cemetery researcher who kept coming upon death certificates for a place called Zion. All were for African Americans. Where was it, he asked, and where? So James Borchuck and I went looking. The University of South Florida's Florida Public Archaeology Network and the Tampa Bay History Center were on my speed dial for 9 months to help us in every way. We found hundreds of death certificates, land ownership records and info on some of those buried there. More importantly, we found NO evidence that the bodies were moved.

Ray Reed BTW is also the tipster who led the school district to Ridgewood.

riptide74722 karma

Who do you want to play you in the movie?

PaulGuzzo73 karma

Someone with hair and who is chiseled so that is how I am remembered rather than a bald dude with a dad bod.

Docteh19 karma

How expensive is ground penetrating radar equipment? Have you considered doing the on the ground part yourself?

PaulGuzzo51 karma

It costs more than I will make in a lifetime .. unless you all subscribe and I get a HUGENORMOUS raise.

PaulGuzzo22 karma

I think the one Cardno uses is in the low hundreds of thousands.

AskAboutMyDumbSite18 karma

Have you had the opportunity to speak with any of the families you've helped bring this to light for?

PaulGuzzo42 karma

Yes. A few. All were shocked to learn that they had family there and that they'd never heard of the family. It is as if after this occurred, it was better to pretend it never happened rather than live with the truth.

https://www.tampabay.com/news/hillsborough/2019/09/13/their-ancestors-were-forgotten-as-zion-cemetery-faded-from-view-now-they-want-answers/

quiet-as-a-mouse16 karma

Thank you for doing this. I live in Tampa and have been astonished at how this has played out.

Do you have any more theories on areas that could contain cemeteries? It seems like they're really spread out (Ybor, Temple Terrace, South Tampa, etc). Is there a specific region of Tampa that you'd like to focus in on?

*Edit, a word*

PaulGuzzo25 karma

We have recently identified another potential. Article should run this weekend or early next week.

Specific regions - historic black communities. Each might have established their own cemetery, like Zion in Robles Pond, Port Tampa where MacDill now sits, and the unnamed one in Clearwater Heights.

Our upcoming story ID's a potential in another historic black community.

blubbersmeems15 karma

i don’t quite understand; how old are these cemeteries? Why do people not know where their ancestors are buried?

PaulGuzzo43 karma

Most of these cemeteries date to the early 1900s.

Why they don't know? Well, from what we have learned, many families with those buried in Zion moved away during what is referred to as the "great migration" of African Americans who were tired of racism in the south. So future generations were raised in other states and would never have had the chance to visit a grandmother's grave site, for instance, and not been around to know the cemetery was destroyed.

Others, from what local African Americans have told me, probably sought to forget the horror they had to witness. I am told it was typical for their grandparents to not want to talk about what they endured. It was easier to forget that, for instance, someone build a home on their mom's grave than to discuss it because their belief was there was nothing that could be done to reverse it. Only now do people feel they have a voice to do something.

hikinglifer12 karma

Thanks for your journalism!

My question is on the tech side: Do you think the discovery and mapping of these lost graves (and all the press they're getting, not to mention a bump in public awareness about the Tulsa Race Riots due to the success of Watchmen) could spur new tech to identify sites in cities and towns around the country? Or maybe new companies using existing tech exclusively for this purpose?

You mentioned in another answer there's an economic incentive to avoid land changing hands and sticking a future owner with liability. Do you mean cities might invest in this research to prevent liability, or do you think developers are going to be worried enough that they'll start doing more careful analysis?

It would be kind of cool if we lived in a world where uncovering institutional racism was more profitable than trying to erase all the trauma and hope nobody finds anything. In the meantime I guess it's up to people like you to shed a light on the issue and focus our attention on it. Thanks!

PaulGuzzo23 karma

marydisposition11 karma

During the Restoration period, typically how close were African American cemeteries to new neighborhoods? So if there was a documented black neighborhood that was torn down to build a shopping center, or a black neighborhood that became a white neighborhood in a short span of time during Jim Crow, would it be expected for there to be a cemetery within close proximity?

PaulGuzzo16 karma

I don't know if all African American communities had their own cemetery but those identified so far were in African American neighborhoods. Zion was once Robles Pond. Port Tampa which might be on MacDill AFB was a black neighborhood. The same can be said for Clearwater Heights across the bridge. I have an story on another potential lost cemetery that was also in a black community. SO I'd never say ALL but in a search to find the lost ones, it would make sense to find old maps of those neighborhoods.

marydisposition11 karma

Thank you. I've been doing some intense amateur research in Jacksonville and your work immediately sparked suspicions. This confirms I may not be on a wild goose chase.

PaulGuzzo20 karma

These lost cemeteries have been whispered about for years. They became an urban legend of sort. It wasn;t until Zion was proven true that others felt comfortable coming forward. Point is - there are no wild goose chases.

appleglitter10 karma

Where I grew up in Texas, there were always stories about the country being the very last to abolish slavery, and that instead of freeing people, they murdered them and tossed them into mass graves all over the county.. are there any resources that would be helpful to find where these mass graves could be?

PaulGuzzo15 karma

History has shown us that mass graves are usually inside a cemetery and not some unknown field. But this is a topic I am not too educated on. Sorry.

coryrenton7 karma

What is the most interesting tidbit you found in research that was unrelated to your story (and thus did not make it in)?

PaulGuzzo25 karma

I've written nearly 50 stories so everything has made it in! ha. Most interesting find BY FAR was that Richard Doby founded Zion. It took us months of looking through land deeds to find the trail leading to its origin. Doby is a history figure in Tampa with a marker denoting the African American neighborhood in Hyde Park that he established. But nowhere in history books was it written that he also established the city's first all-black cemetery a few miles away. When I saw that deed and the name RC Doby on it, I legit let out a scream. Yeah ... my kids don't think I'm very cool either.

marydisposition7 karma

Do you have any indication if United States Colored Infantry veterans are included in these cemeteries? Was Tampa a place USCT vets settled??

PaulGuzzo10 karma

These cemeteries came years later and all recorded deaths did too.

MrSnowden7 karma

Have you considered that the term "unearthing" used in conjunction with a cemetery might be awkward?

PaulGuzzo18 karma

There are so many terms we use when describing researching history that are suddenly bad puns when used for this story. Like "digging up info." It's a tough call.

MrSnowden9 karma

I admit, if I was a journalist, I would cram as many bad puns as I could into every story. The more oblique the better.

PaulGuzzo5 karma

ha

MmmDarkMeat7 karma

Are any of the buildings that were built over it haunted?

AgonyInTheIrony11 karma

I grew up in Hernando and heard So many stories from the locals about the May Stringer house. Enough people have worked there over the years and reported the same stories of unusual activity. I’m not one to believe in ghosts but it’s spooky when so many people you know share the same stories about that building.

PaulGuzzo25 karma

When I took a tour, they told me that the most haunted room was the attic. So I went to check it out. They "forgot" to tell me that had a mannequin in the attic that was facing the window. I may have screamed in terror.

AgonyInTheIrony7 karma

Mannequins are unnaturally common in the upstairs rooms in that town, I swear

PaulGuzzo4 karma

ha

Buuzzzzz6 karma

Are you a lighting fan?

PaulGuzzo11 karma

Jersey boy, born and raised and will never turn.

Florida_Archaeo_Gal6 karma

Hey Paul, so what are you looking forward to reporting on once you are done researching all these cemeteries? Might be a while from how this has played out so far...

PaulGuzzo17 karma

I am in the very early stages of a pretty cool history story that might take as long as a year to work on. I don't want to give specifics, though, since it might not pan out and since I don't want someone else to steal it from me.

Rainbowclaw276 karma

Might be a weird question, but has this research had any impact on what you'd prefer to happen to your remains when you die (hopefully after a very long life)?

PaulGuzzo27 karma

Honestly, I have never cared personally. If my kids want a place to visit, then they can bury me somewhere. Or, they can burn me up and put me in their closet. I have only one request. My obit has to say, "Paul Guzzo was better than Josh Kincannon in every way." Josh was my college roommate and I have promised since then that my obit would get the last word.

marydisposition5 karma

Has anyone noticed any patterns or anomalies throughout the history of soil surveys, construction permits and plans that were required at these sites? Anything that stood out as different or stood out as a noticeable void?

PaulGuzzo11 karma

back then there were no laws protecting cemeteries, so they could do as they pleased.

carnivalwraith5 karma

Where is this located? Is there any way for the public to see any of this? I'm in Tampa, near downtown, and this sounds fascinating.

PaulGuzzo12 karma

Zion stretches across the 3700 block of N. Florida ave and then 420 feet back into Robles Park Village.

Freemontst4 karma

Thanks for your hard work. What else are you working on?

PaulGuzzo6 karma

This has been keeping me pretty occupied but I have started on something else that could be cool. But it's too early to put it out there publicly. Still not sure if it's a story.

redbull213694 karma

How are you holding up through all this?

PaulGuzzo13 karma

Is this a ploy to get me to say I am drinking lots of Red Bull? :) Because I am!

EinsteinPicasso4 karma

Any investigation into the Church that owned the land?

Also, have you spoken and or taken into account the Black families living in the area, as I noticed they've commented on some of the links you posted on their accounts with that cemetery.

Sidenote: Nice reporting.

PaulGuzzo20 karma

Yes, we spoke to the three churches linked to Zion. A few of the members had heard whispers about it, but not much. That was one of the most bizarre parts of this story. Zion didn't just get erased from the maps. It was erased from Tampa history. This was the first all-black cemetery in the segregation era that this city had and one of its most prominent burial grounds. It was filled to capacity with nearly 800. Yet barely anyone had ever heard of it. And those who did, had only heard its name/

EinsteinPicasso3 karma

Thought this Youtube comment was interesting:

"See thats some BS, it wasn't unused land that land belonged to joseph robles 160 acres and his sons were stonecutters who were known for marking graves so they unmarked them and he created florida ave the street and covered up all those graves that entire was used to make money by the Robles family. "

What do you think?

PaulGuzzo20 karma

No, that does not follow history. That plot was one of the few in that area not owned by Robles. It took its name from the nearby pond named for him. African American pioneer Richard Doby purchased the land in the 1890s from a white landowner whose name now escapes me. He then built the cemetery and a church and school. He later sold it to a company made up of his fellow church parishioners. They lost it in a fire sale after losing a civil case because they owed money. That was in 1915. We lose track of land sales until 1926 when H.P. Kennedy purchases it from a woman residing in LA. The price - $1. Kennedy then built storefronts on it.

PaulGuzzo17 karma

Isaac Warner. Doby bought the land from Isaac Warner.

kyoto_kinnuku4 karma

A housing complex was closed? What happened to those people??

PaulGuzzo16 karma

Five of the 67 buildings were on the cemetery. Those residents were relocated. Those living in the other 62 remain there.

thegreatgazoo4 karma

Have you contacted NASA to see if they can help? I know they have some satellite technology that has been used to find archeological sites.

PaulGuzzo23 karma

I don't think NASA is necessary but aerial maps are key to finding these.

Pat_Headroom3 karma

Do you know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried?

PaulGuzzo9 karma

Giants Stadium, right?

Ethanol_Oil2 karma

What is one thing you have found while unearthing this cemetery?

PaulGuzzo9 karma

Can you be more specific? You mean the most astounding find?

madman3247-13 karma

Why would a graveyard be designated for a single race? So it's a racist graveyard?

PaulGuzzo16 karma

Yes. During the era of segregation blacks and whites could not even be buried next to one another. The city cemeteries had black sections - areas set aside from the whites that were also fenced in. But those were not large enough for the entire African American community. So they built their own cemeteries.