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Richard Gonzmart Now Says Zion Graves May Be On Property He Owns

Rebecca O'Sullivan of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at USF conducts ground penetrating scans at the Robles Park Village Housing Complex earlier this year.
An archaeologist conducts ground penetrating scans at the Robles Park Village Housing Complex earlier this year. Scans will soon be done on adjacent property owned by Richard Gonzmart to look for Zion Cemetery coffins. FLORIDA PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY NETWORK

What once was Zion Cemetery - believed to be Tampa's first African American cemetery - now sits on two-and-a-half acres divided among three owners.

Scans of the section owned by the Tampa Housing Authority have found 144 coffins so far. Now Tampa restauranteur Richard Gonzmart is clarifying what he thinks might be on the portion of property two of his warehouses occupy.

Gonzmart had told the Tampa Bay Times in September that he didn't believe there were bodies on his property.

But now he says he misspoke, and meant to say that he doesn't think there will be bodies under his buildings.

READ MORE See WUSF News' coverage of Tampa's "lost cemeteries"

Some of the coffins already mapped reach the property line that the Robles Park Village housing projects share with Gonzmart.

In a statement Gonzmart's Columbia Restaurant Group sent WUSF, officials said that they want to find out the truth about the history of the grounds belonging to the property they own.

"We have systemically and conscientiously done our research on the best way to move forward. We believe it’s more important to have information that’s accurate rather than fast," the statement read.

“I am a man of great faith, and my faith led us to purchase that property for a special project to help that neighborhood,” said Gonzmart. “My faith tells me there are not any bodies buried under these buildings. We’ll find out.”

Ground penetrating radar scans of Gonzmart's property are expected to be done in the next few weeks. Columbia officials believe they will have answers by the end of the year and will take steps to a resolution then.

A third basketball court-sized portion of land, is owned by Sunstate Wrecker Service.

It's not known how many coffins are yet to be discovered. The Tampa Bay Times has reported that nearly 800 death certificates list Zion as a burial space, but there’s evidence only a handful were ever moved.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
After more than 40 years learning and helping others understand more about so many aspects of our world and living in it, I still love making connections between national news stories and our community. It's exciting when I can find a thread between a national program or greater premise and what is happening at the local or personal level. This has been true whether I’ve spun the novelty tunes of Raymond Scott or Wilmoth Houdini from a tiny outpost in a Vermont field, or shared the voices of incarcerated women about what it’s like to be behind bars on Mother’s Day with the entire state of New Hampshire.
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