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Hillsborough School District unveils proposed memorial to lost Ridgewood Cemetery

The presentation came 15 months after it was announced that at least 145 unmarked graves belonging to Ridgewood were on Tampa’s King High campus.
A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown.
A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown. [ Courtesy of Jerel McCants Architecture ]
Published Feb. 15
Updated Feb. 15

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District on Monday unveiled proposed renderings of a walkable memorial to honor those buried in Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown and to ensure it will neither be forgotten nor lost again.

The presentation by memorial designer Jerel McCants of Jerel McCants Architecture came 15 months after it was announced that at least 145 unmarked graves belonging to the mid-20th century cemetery were on Tampa’s King High campus on the corner of North 56th Street at Sligh Avenue.

It is believed there are as many as 269 unmarked graves on the property.

Jerel McCants of Jerel McCants Architecture presents his proposed rendering for a Ridgewood Cemetery memorial.
Jerel McCants of Jerel McCants Architecture presents his proposed rendering for a Ridgewood Cemetery memorial. [ Paul Guzzo ]

The memorial seeks to “reclaim what has been lost,” McCants told school board members, school district leaders, civil rights activists, archaeologists and historians who make up the Historical Response Committee charged with making decisions on the fate of Ridgewood Cemetery.

Some attended the presentation at King High School. Others watched via Zoom.

The proposal has not been approved, school district operations chief Chris Farkas said. The public can now weigh in with suggestions.

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

At the center of McCants’ renderings are two triangles measuring 21 feet in length and with aluminum frames and oxidized bronze sheathing. Each would be pitched at a 42-degree angle and meet in the middle of a 7-foot high stone pedestal.

McCants said the triangles symbolize both a dove’s wings and open hands releasing a dove.

A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown.
A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown. [ Courtesy of Jerel McCants Architecture ]

“The dove represents peace of the deepest kind,” McCants said. “The dove is the symbol of the soul’s release from its earth-bound glory.”

The triangles would include a waterfall pouring into a rectangular pool surrounded by pavers. Lights would be installed on each corner of the pool. Nameless grave markers for each of the 269 buried would surround the pool within a fenced area delineating the one-acre cemetery’s boundaries.

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

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.

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Related: This teacher is adding Black cemetery histories to the Hillsborough curriculum

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 unmarked graves a few weeks later.

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 ]

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

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

Ridgewood is one of five lost cemeteries that have been found throughout the Tampa Bay area over the past 19 months. Two were discovered in Clearwater and three in Tampa.

The Ridgewood memorial will be paid in part with $50,000 allocated by the Florida Legislature.

Farkas said the school district will wait to price the memorial in full until the community has a chance to suggest changes or additions.

A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown.
A proposed rendering of a walkable memorial honoring those buried in the mid-20th century Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown. [ Courtesy of Jerel McCants Architecture ]

School Board and Historical Response Committee member Henry Washington suggested adding the names of those buried in Ridgewood to the pavers.

Yvette Lewis, head of the Hillsborough County NAACP and committee member, said she wants the site to include a plaque telling “the real story. The city forgot these people.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers said she hopes the memorial is accessible to the public and not something that can only be seen from the other side of a fence.

State law requires that all cemeteries offer some sort of visitation hours.

The school district will seek to “find a balance between” the cemetery being “open to the public,” Farkas said, “and public safety” for King High’s students and faculty.