© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Archaeologists Continue Zion Cemetery Search At Tampa Impound Lot

Rebecca O'Sullivan, dressed in warm gear and jeans, pushes a ground penetrating radar device that resembles a baby jogging stroller over an empty lot shaded by an oak tree.
Rebecca O'Sullivan of the USF Anthropology Department pushes a ground-penetrating radar unit over a Tampa auto impound lot. Graves from the lost Zion Cemetery are suspected to be there. Credit: Wayne Garcia/WUSF Public Media

The next step in the search for graves from the lost Zion Cemetery continued Tuesday morning in a Tampa auto impound lot.

Four workers from the private consultant Cardno and the University of South Florida Anthropology Department spent a chilly morning raking and picking up concrete and large rocks by hand.

They were looking for graves. Rubble interferes with the ground-penetrating radar.

Archaeologists already have found 144 graves from Zion underneath sections of the Robles Park public housing complex, just north of downtown Tampa.

READ MORE: See WUSF's coverage of Tampa's "lost cemeteries"

The search is widening to this lot owned by Sunstate Wrecker Services.

A warehouse and land next door owned by Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart of Columbia Restaurant fame likely also was built atop lost graves.

Sunstate General Manager Tony Huffman said his company is happy to have the archaeologists there for the past two days.

“I guess the only emotion can be described (is) we were elated that somebody would take the time to actually come in and do the work to find these lost souls,” Huffman said. “Our first thought process was, indeed, if it's here, then we need to know about it. Everybody needs to know about it.”

Researchers suspect that the potter's field for the cemetery could be on Sunstate’s property. It was a section of Zion Cemetery where the poor and unnamed were buried.

Huffman said the results could take one week to a month to get back.

The work is being funded by the Tampa Housing Authority, which owns Robles Park. It is moving residents out of apartments near and over the graves already found on the site. The entire housing complex will eventually be demolished and a memorial to the Zion dead erected.

For Huffman and the wrecker service employees, finding out about the lost graveyard was unsettling.

“We were kind of shocked to find out that there might actually be bodies buried on the property,” Huffman said, “pretty dismayed that there would be no record of that having been here.”

He said the site is now used to store automobiles awaiting post-accident insurance adjustments, impounded autos and heavy equipment used by the company.

What happens after the archaeology report comes in, he added, isn't up to Huffman.

“It's a much larger issue,” Huffman said. “And I'm sure the city of Tampa, the mayor's office, and everybody involved will have to come up with some sort of plan as to how they want to proceed.”

“For us as the owners of the property, of course, we're still operating a business,” he said. “This is a crucial piece of property for our business. So unfortunately, we’ll continue to have to use it in the manner that we have been.”

Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.