Zion Cemetery preservation at center of Robles Park redevelopment

As Tampa City Council received an update Thursday on the search for unmarked graves that were once part of Zion Cemetery, the future of Robles Park Village, which sits on top of the forgotten African American burial ground, also became clearer.

Archeologists told the city council a total of roughly 140 coffins have been discovered so far, but hundreds more are likely buried under the Robles Park apartment complex or nearby homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, Leroy Moore, chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority, detailed the agency's progress in relocating the families living above the lost cemetery. Moore said 19 of the 29 families residing in those buildings have been relocated. The remaining 10 are finalizing their moves.

Moore also revealed the housing authority has sped up plans to re-develop Robles Park Village.

"This discovery has certainly advanced our re-development planning of Robles and we are probably a year ahead of where we would have been," he said. "[We plan to] tear down the existing buildings and redevelop a bigger community, a more modern community but, most importantly also, come up with a plan for Zion, this two-and-a-half-acre part of Robles Park. Preserve it forever."

Experts know of about 800 death certificates connected to Zion, but they more graves than that, especially once the buildings are moved.

"Maybe up to 1,000 burials total," said Eric Prendergast, the chief investigator on the Zion Cemetery project. "Once those are very carefully demoed, we can actually move forward and expand our investigation into those areas beneath slab."

Prendergast also said a search conducted earlier in the week on the property owned by Sunstate Wrecker Service on Florida Avenue likely discovered more unmarked graves.

Project and city leaders are planning to place a memorial at the Zion Cemetery site after the complex is re-developed.