What will happen to the cemetery found last year on King High’s Tampa campus?

The Hillsborough County School District held a Zoom meeting on Tuesday to deliberate the future of the cemetery.
An overlay map showing where Ridgewood Cemetery is located on the King High School campus. The red outline indicates the boundary of the cemetery and the pink boxes the graves.
An overlay map showing where Ridgewood Cemetery is located on the King High School campus. The red outline indicates the boundary of the cemetery and the pink boxes the graves. [ Courtesy of GeoView ]
Published Oct. 27, 2020|Updated Oct. 27, 2020

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District says they are determined to ensure that Ridgewood Cemetery is not forgotten again.

Nearly a year after it was discovered that hundreds of unmarked graves from the erased mid-20th century cemetery for the indigent and unknown were still located on the southeast corner of the King High School campus, the district’s Historical Response Committee convened via Zoom on Tuesday.

The committee, set up to guide the school district on how to manage the cemetery, said the bodies should remain in the ground, a marker should be erected to denote the cemetery’s location and the story of the burial ground should become part of the school district’s curriculum.

The school district needs to “educate students on the history of the cemetery and those interred there,” school board member Tamara Shamburger said during the meeting, “as well as how it relates to their life today.”

Related: Radar finds 145 graves buried beneath King High School in Tampa

This was the first time the response committee convened since last November, when it was first announced that Ridgewood was on the King High campus at 6815 North 56th St.

The school district had been waiting for guidance from the Florida Division of Historical Resources before making any decisions on the future of the cemetery.

“The state informed us they do not have jurisdiction over the cemetery unless it is located on state lands, which it is not,” school district spokesperson Tanya Arja told the Tampa Bay Times via email. “Legal authority is now turned back over to the district.”

Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, told the Times that the school district needs to come up with a “comprehensive cemetery management plan," such as establishing visiting hours.

“State law is pretty vague. It’s up to them,” Moates said when asked if visiting hours need to be daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. “They have to offer visitation at a reasonable time and manner.”

The cemetery management plan would also include delineating the boundaries, Moates said during the meeting, and having the land zoned as a cemetery.

“Now that it is ours,” Chris Farkas, the school district’s chief of operation, said during the meeting, “we will go through the process to make sure it is marked as a cemetery.”

Related: Family hopes to rescue ancestor from oblivion of forgotten pauper’s cemetery

Committee member Bob Morrison would like the school district to look into turning the cemetery land into a memorial park with a monument listing the names of all those buried there.

Records indicate that there were 250 to 268 burials at Ridgewood. Nearly all were Black people.

The community should also “engage in some sort of memorial service,” Rev. Greg Gay, Sr., of Mt. Olive AME Church, said during the meeting, and find and invite the descendants.

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The Times has tracked down the descendants of one person, James Tuten Bell. The family previously said that they would like to move the body to their family cemetery if his burial spot can be identified. If that is not possible, they would like visitation options.

Tampa opened Ridgewood Cemetery in 1942 as a burial site for the indigent and unknown.

The city sold a 40-acre plot that included the cemetery to a private company in 1957 and that company sold it to the school district in 1959.

The school district’s deed makes note of Ridgewood but, over time, the grave markers were removed and the cemetery was forgotten. It remains unclear how that happened.

In October 2019, cemetery researcher Ray Reed informed the school district of the possibility that Ridgewood graves may remain at the King High campus.

Using ground-penetrating radar, a company called GeoView discovered 145 unmarked graves — but believed all 250 to 269 bodies are still there.

Related: Buried as paupers then forgotten, their resting place became King High

The one-acre site was open land with one small building, used for the school’s agricultural program. That structure has since been removed.

Three other erased and forgotten cemeteries — each for Black residents — have been discovered in the Tampa Bay area over the last 16 months. Two are in Clearwater and the third in Tampa.

Related: See how the story of lost cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times.