Christmas in Robles Park Village is what junior Leon Hobdy and his cousin, sophomore Iyonna Keel, will miss the most after they move. Everyone walks outside in the morning to chat with neighbors, dressed in Christmas pajamas. The kids play with their toys in the street. In the evening, they dress up nice and eat rice, baked beans, ham and mac and cheese together.
“It’s like a hood family,” Keel said.
After the meal last year, Hobdy’s mom fed the homeless in Robles Park with the leftovers.
On a regular afternoon, Hobdy walks home from school. First past the library, then the Chevron gas station, the Mcdonalds, the fire station and into his neighborhood. The salmon pink buildings with a red base line the street for several blocks and neighbors sit outside in camp chairs.
Now, Hobdy and his family are getting ready to move out of the public housing apartment he’s lived in for four years.
Last year, the long-lost African-American burial ground, Zion Cemetery, was discovered under Robles Park Village. The Tampa Housing Authority (THA) formed a new plan for the land that will both honor those buried in the cemetery and create a new, mixed-income neighborhood. This comes at the cost of displacing the community that has formed since the project’s construction in 1951.
Hobdy says his mom thinks the move will be good for him because of the violence and shootings that occur in Robles more regularly than in other neighborhoods. Hobdy agrees to some extent. Fights are common, and there are always police around.
“You’re not going to see a day [the police] aren’t there,” his cousin Keel said.
Hobdy is also sad to see the community get dispersed. Keel and her family moved to Temple Terrace a few months ago and she rarely goes outside anymore, she says, because she doesn’t know her neighbors anymore.
“I feel attached to these kids and these people,” Hobdy said.
A few blocks down from Hobdy’s apartment is the gated-off site of the Zion Cemetery. Zip-tied to the chain link fence are signs depicting what is known of the history of Zion, along with the names of the people buried there. Inside the fence are empty Robles apartments, pavement and on the other side of the apartments, a large grassy area.
According to Fred Hearns, the curator of Black History at the Tampa Bay History Center and the President of the Zion Cemetery committee, 19 families were living in apartments on top of gravesites. They were evacuated soon after the discovery.
Hearns has big plans for the area.
He wants a memorial that can be seen from Florida Avenue and a garden. Somewhere, there will be a list of names of the people buried there.
He also imagines a large facility, with a parking lot, where students, community members, and visitors can go in and do more research about Zion cemetery, the people who lived there, and genealogy in general.
Hearn’s goal is to make sure that something like this never happens again.
“I am hopeful, I’m optimistic. I believe one day we will do justice for the people buried there and their family and their descendants,” he said.
The story of Zion Cemetery is one common throughout history. The city sold the land at a tax break to someone who knew there was a cemetery there. Then, the new owner got permission to put buildings on top. The people were told that the bodies were removed, but records show only a few of them actually were.
There was an article published in the Tampa Tribune at the time of construction, showing that bones were found as they got the land ready for construction, but construction went on.
“Black people of the time didn’t want to rock the boat with the people with power and money. Who was going to listen to them?” Hearns said.
Eventually, Zion Cemetery was forgotten by almost everyone. But in 2019, county worker Ray Reed came across death certificates for those buried in Zion Cemetery, which he had never heard of. He asked around and no one knew where it could be. Soon, old maps of Tampa pointed to the location of Robles Park.
According to a scan of the area, there are currently 650 coffin shaped boxes under Robles Park.
Hobdy says that before the discovery, his aunt believed there was something off about the neighborhood. She told him she felt a weird presence, like there were spirits. He didn’t believe her then. But when the news came out about the cemetery, it made sense.
Now, the THA is using the discovery of the cemetery as an opportunity to redevelop Robles Park Village. The new housing will be a mix of market-rate housing, meaning prices similar to houses in the Tampa Heights Neighborhood, affordable housing with slightly lower prices, and public housing, which is what is provided at Robles Park now.
The THA wants to work alongside the building of the Zion memorial, so that the projects can be completed at a similar time, but first the Zion Cemetery Committee has some obstacles to face.
Currently, the area where the graves are is owned by three different entities, only half is owned by the THA. The other half is owned by two private entities that won’t give up their land without some sort of compensation. So, the committee is working on a deal with those entities to get the land before they can start on officially planning their project.
Hearns hopes to have a concrete plan with official dates by next year.
For now, the THA is working on moving all the residents into public housing elsewhere. Occupants were given money by the government so they can find a new place to live.
Hobdy’s family plans on leaving Robles Park at the beginning of next month.