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USF working to discover and uncover century-old grave sites

Alongside the state, Andrew Smith of the USF library is poring through historic records to find those who were lost long ago. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Back from the dead, forgotten individuals are now being remembered after more than a century.  

USF is working with the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) to uncover forgotten burial grounds in Tampa Bay. 

FPAN is a state-supported organization. According to its website, they are “dedicated to the protection of cultural resources, both on land and underwater, and to involving the public in the study of their past.”

Zion Cemetery is the first African American cemetery to be recognized by the city of Tampa. The cemetery was established in 1901 but disappeared from city maps in 1925, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

It did not recapture anyone’s attention until Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Bay Times questioned what became of it in June 2019. 

Reporters discovered that the burial ground is now located in an empty lot behind Robles Park Village as well as in the parking lot of Sunstate Wrecker Services. During the recovery, there were around 300 caskets found within the 2 1/2 acres. 

It is also believed that the cemetery has room to hold 800 caskets. However, the number of how many are actually there is unknown due to the possibility that there are more below the concrete buildings nearby.

Andrew Smith, an associate librarian at USF, reached out to FPAN to get involved after learning about the lost burials through Guzzo, thinking his background in genealogy would aid in research. 

“When I became aware of Zion [FPAN’s task force] through the articles written, I thought that my genealogical skills might be useful in learning more about those who were buried there,” Smith said. “I offered to do as much as was wanted, and I made a presentation to the Zion Task Force at the Tampa Housing Authority to explain who I was and how I thought I could be of help.”

Smith started his search by digging through Hillsborough County records. They collected information on individuals such as when they died, possible family members and marriage records, as well as city directories and newspapers from the estimated time the burials were created. 

“I started by using death records for Hillsborough County that had been microfilmed and then more recently digitized by FamilySearch, the genealogy branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Smith said. 

Smith also said that many records have been lost, which has slowed the search process. 

“Some of the records that would have helped have been lost,” Smith said. “For instance, we don’t have any funeral home records that tell us exactly where anyone was buried. And there are no existing African American newspapers from that time period.” 

Smith said he thinks the project will teach students and faculty about the importance of studying local history.

“It demonstrates how much USF and its community depend upon each other,” Smith said. “It [also] provides a learning opportunity for USF students, not only to have a better understanding of Tampa’s history but also to develop their own research skills by learning how to engage in local history research.”

Smith said the hunt to uncover the past lives of these forgotten individuals is important to not only himself but the university at large to exercise its role in the Tampa community. 

“USF is very much a part of the Tampa Bay community, and when faculty use their expertise to help in addressing local issues, it demonstrates how important the community is to USF and how important USF is to the community.”

Smith said the task of retrieving long-lost records will take longer than initially expected.

“I expect that this task will occupy a portion of my time for a period that could easily last several years,” Smith said. 

However, because of the value of the lives forgotten, Smith said the time commitment is necessary. 

“I believe that it is worth this much time to bring these people back to life,” Smith said.  

“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.”