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African American History Lost In Tampa Graveyard

Paul Guzzo in Tampa's Memorial Cemetery
James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times
The Tampa Bay Times Paul Guzzo looks at graves in Tampa's Memorial Cemetery. His investigation of Zion Cemetery found that no one seems to know what happened to hundreds of bodies that were buried in Tampa's first African American cemetery.

Last fall, a cemetery historian came upon a few death certificates from a little-known Tampa burial ground called Zion and he wanted help to learn more about it.

Tampa Bay Times journalist Paul Guzzo took the story on, and after nine months of research, he discovered that no one really knows what happened to hundreds of bodies that were buried in Tampa's first African American cemetery.

"In writing the story, it wasn't so much trying to write that the bodies were lost. We had to try to disprove that theory. We had to prove they're not lost. They're somewhere," said Guzzo. "So you do that by looking through city death records - 30,000 death records. We only located three people who were buried in Zion there."

"We walked all of Memorial Cemetery which was the other African American cemetery at the time and found only seven, looked through newspaper archives, reinterment records, we called funeral homes, other cemeteries. Nothing," he added.

Guzzo can only speculate on why there is almost no record of those who were interred in Zion.

"In the early 1900s if you were African American, you really only got written about if you were arrested or if you were really one of the more prominent people," he said.

Eunive Massey remembers Zion Cemetery
Credit James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times
Eunive Massey remembers Zion Cemetery

Where there was a record, Guzzo made a note of it. His story for the Tampa Bay Times includes 11 biographical notes.

"So, a few of the more prominent people like L.G. Caro who helped form Bethel Baptist church. We found quite a bit about him," he said.

As part of his story, Guzzo put out the call for people to share what they may know or remember about Zion. He was blown away by the response he got from 96-year-old Eunive Massey.

"It was absolutely amazing that somebody is not only still alive but whose memory is still so clear," said Guzzo. "She said she was there in the 1930s when men came in and started moving the bodies, but she does not know where they went, and the process she explained did not sound very organized or even respectful. " 

Massey claimed the graveyard workers left human remains out in plain sight.

"She recalled that when the workers would leave at the end of the day or at the end of Friday, the neighborhood kids would climb into the cemetery holes. Sometimes they would find remains still there, so these men were getting off work and leaving the skeletons still there," he said. "She recalled seeing every so often random bones in the sand next to grave shafts."

Guzzo said that technological advances made his work much easier and that the story would not have been possible even a couple of decades ago.

"I was able to find all the digitized news archives. The city of Tampa has digitized all of their City Council minutes from every decade," he said. "So they sent me easily searchable pdfs where I could do searches for words on these. If I had tried to do this story years 20 ago it absolutely would have been impossible."