As forgotten burial grounds continue to be discovered around Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida and Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) are working with local officials and community members to rediscover unmarked graves and identify those forgotten there.
Currently, FPAN and several USF researchers are working on collecting and analyzing data from several sites including two locations in Clearwater as well as the area surrounding Robles Cemetery in Tampa. Perhaps the most notable project is underway at Zion Cemetery, the first African American cemetery recognized by the City of Tampa.
After receiving a tip in 2019, the Tampa Bay Times began an extensive search, reviewing historical records, death certificates and conducting a number of interviews, leading to the discovery of 839 burials listed in Hillsborough County records.
Following the finding, the Times reached out to FPAN to help with the search. Using ground penetrating radar, a technology that reveals anomalies several feet below the earth’s surface, archaeologist Rebecca O’Sullivan and her team surveyed the land now owned by the Tampa Housing Authority, locating nearly 300 unmarked graves.
Although several buildings on the property are preventing archaeologists from surveying the entire site, the findings enabled researchers to get an idea of where other graves may be located by comparing the anomalies to a 1901 map of Zion Cemetery.
“It’s important that we preserve these places and put them back on the map and in the minds and the history of the Tampa Bay area,” said O’Sullivan. “All of these techniques are completely non-destructive, so we can locate where these graves are and preserve them in place.”
After hearing about Zion Cemetery and the hundreds of burials found in county records, Drew Smith, an associate librarian at USF, reached out to the cemetery’s task force to help. A former president of the Florida Genealogical Society, Smith began working with the society as well as community members to trace the “forgotten” individuals’ lineage in hopes of finding living relatives to notify.
“We die twice,” said Smith. “We die when our physical body dies, but we also die when the last person speaks our name. We can bring these people back because we can begin talking about them and speaking their names again.”
Using available death certificates, Smith and the task force begin by collecting information for each of the individuals on the list, such as the year the person died, how old the individual was when they passed, as well as noting any family members listed on the certificate. Then, genealogists search for additional documents such as census records, birth certificates, marriage records, obituaries, newspapers and anything else that may help them put the person’s story together.
While Smith admits it will likely take several years to research the lineage of all the individuals believed to be buried at Zion Cemetery, the task force’s goal is to carry on their legacy, eventually creating a memorial park to honor those once forgotten.