TAMPA, Fla. — “How could they?” Dania Wiles asked in dismay. “That's a resting place."
It’s the question neighbors at Robles Park Apartments in Tampa keep asking after discovering they are living on top of Tampa’s first black cemetery.
On Monday, archaeologists with the University of South Florida and Cardno began using ground-penetrating radar to detect anomalies in the soil which could help them determine if there are still graves in the ground.
“It bounces a radar signal under the ground, and based on the strength of the return of that signal, we can infer that there are objects buried beneath the ground,” said Eric Prendergrast of Cardno.
Rebecca O’Sullivan, an archaeologist with USF, said multiple underground anomalies have already been detected. However, it will be a few weeks before they know if those abnormalities are likely to be graves.
“I hope that we can get answers for the community today,” said O’Sullivan. “And there are so many African American cemeteries and African American historic sites that have been destroyed or covered up like this all over the country, definitely all over Florida. I think it's so important that we try to bring that history back so that people can understand it.”
It was through a major investigation from the Tampa Bay Times that Zion Cemetery came back into the public light. The cemetery was once located along North Florida Avenue and was paved over in the early 1950s when the Tampa Housing Authority built Robles Park Apartments.
The current housing authority administration acted immediately upon learning about the old cemetery.
“Just the mere fact that a cemetery did exist here should have resulted in a revision of the plan,” Leroy Moore told 10News in June. Moore is chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority.
“In 1951, [housing authority minutes] report that the construction crew did unearth three caskets, and then it was silent going forward from that point, which is very concerning and disturbing that something like that would be reported in one board meeting and never heard from again in future board meetings,” said Moore. “It certainly gives me reason to question … whether there was an interest back in those days of determining if indeed there were more caskets before completing the building of this site.”
The housing authority formed a community committee to help oversee the Zion investigation. It also hired Cardno and is working with USF archaeologists to solve the mystery.
"It happens all over the country all the time, and we do end up with neighborhoods where there are erased black cemeteries,” said Prendergrast. It's not enough to say they are lost all the time ... because in the '20s and the '30s, there's more of a nefarious element going on where that space isn't being valued in the way it ought to be … ,” he said.
“It's not just the cemeteries. It's the neighborhoods and people's houses and what might start as a process known as gentrification during urban renewal was almost a more systematic erasure of communities,” he added. “And it's not just the houses, it's not just the businesses and the schools or the churches. It's the cemeteries as well. And here we are.”
O’Sullivan said it will be a couple of weeks before they are able to process images from the ground-penetrating radar. Once that is complete, they will be able to better determine if graves are still underneath the Robles Park development.
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