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Zion reimagined: How the forgotten cemetery could look once restored

The forgotten African American cemetery in Tampa could soon be formally recognized once again.

TAMPA, Fla. — The forgotten Zion Cemetery that was lost to time and covered with a towing lot, a private business and a public housing development could soon be formally recognized as a cemetery once again.

“It's essential that we get Zion actually re-platted, replaced and recognized on maps--geocoded and permanently preserved as an active cemetery, a memorial cemetery," the Tampa Housing Authority's Leroy Moore said. "It won't be receiving new internments, but the 800 or so people that was interred there have their names recognized, have this location permanently preserved as a cemetery for future generations."

The Tampa Housing Authority’s Robles Park Village complex sits on more than half of the 2.5-acre site that comprises the forgotten Zion Cemetery. Two other businesses, including a towing lot and property owned by businessman Richard Gonzmart, cover the rest of the cemetery, which sits along N. Florida Avenue.

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Over the last few months, archaeologists with Cardno and USF have worked together, scanning all three parcels of land to determine what still rests underground. In August, archaeologists found 127 caskets at the Robles site; in December, they found 55 more at the Sunstate Wrecker Service.

“Because Zion was once lost and has now been found again, we think that the history, the story needs to be told. How could this ever have happened, and what must we do going forward to assure that it never again happens?” Moore said.

Those who live in Robles Park Village said they will push for a memorial that sets a precedent for finding other lost African American cemeteries across the nation.

"What I'm looking for as the representative of Robles Park and the association's resident council is city, county, federal, state -- I don't care who it is -- that we all come together as one," he said. "That we all come together to make this right. And what I mean by making this right is we make this special. We make this known as something that those individuals that lie beneath Robles Park Village-- that their history lives on for years, that it's told throughout the nation. That is what we're looking for here in Robles Park Village."

Moore said the discovery of Zion has accelerated the redevelopment process for Robles Park by at least a year. This month, a board will select from three architects a team who will oversee the master planning for the new community, which includes the Zion memorial.

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