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More Than 100 Graves Found On Gonzmart-Owned Property On Zion Site

Researchers work with ground-penetrating radar in a housing complex yard
Rebecca O'Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at USF and other researchers conduct ground penetrating scans at the Robles Park Village Housing Complex last year. COURTESY FLORIDA PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY NETWORK

Scans of the Tampa property owned by Richard Gonzmart and his Columbia Restaurant Group have revealed at least 115 probable graves of the Zion Cemetery.

The cemetery is believed to be Tampa's first African-American burial ground, but was removed from city maps sometime after 1925.

More than 300 graves have been found so far on the full 2 1/2-half acre property, which also includes the Robles Park Village Housing complex and a towing company.

A statement from the Columbia Restaurant Group said officials are looking into a land swap or sale so the cemetery can be protected. The group currently has two warehouses on the property, which it planned to eventually turn into a culinary school for at-risk high school students.

The Columbia will use the buildings while they seek another property.

“We said from the beginning that we would do the right thing,” Gonzmart said in a statement. “And this is the right thing. Let them rest in peace.”

“I’m very pleased with this quick decision by the Columbia Restaurant Group,” Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough branch president of the NACCP, said in the same statement. “It’s clear everyone wants the same thing: For this cemetery to be preserved and memorialized.”

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

Gonzmart had told the Tampa Bay Times last September that he didn't believe there were bodies on his property. But in November, he said he had misspoke, and meant to say that he didn't think there would be bodies under his buildings.

It's not known how many coffins are on the property. The Times has reported that nearly 800 death certificates list Zion as a burial space, but it appears that only a handful were ever moved.