TAMPA — For decades, there were whispers among Hillsborough County’s Black community that an erased cemetery was on the southern edge of King High School’s campus.
“They didn’t say anything because their voices were silenced,” said Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “No one wanted to listen to them until they had to.”
In 2019, ground-penetrating radar discovered 145 of the nearly 270 graves belonging to what was once marked as Ridgewood Cemetery. Nearly all the burials were Black residents.
On Monday, the Hillsborough County School District unveiled a memorial marking the cemetery again.
That’s a start, said Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis, but not enough.
She now wants the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the school district to give reparations to the Black community.
“They stole our land,” she told the Tampa Bay Times at the unveiling ceremony. “They stole our history. It’s time for them to give something back.”
She was referring to the six sites throughout the region that archaeologists have confirmed are home to erased or forgotten graves tied to pioneering Black communities. Another five sites have been identified as likely locations but have not yet been surveyed by archaeologists. Each of the discoveries came after the Times in 2019 detailed the erasure of Zion Cemetery.
The cemeteries, most of which were Black-owned, were taken by local governments through a variety of methods, including wrongful taxation and eminent domain. The properties were then sold to developers and built upon with the graves still there.
Ridgewood just seems to have been forgotten.
Tampa purchased the 1 acre of land for Ridgewood in 1933 and opened it in 1942 as a cemetery for the poor and unidentified.
The city sold a 40-acre plot that included the cemetery to a private company in 1957, and the company sold it to the school district in 1959.
The school district’s deed makes note of the cemetery but, over time, the grave markers disappeared, and Ridgewood was forgotten.
Then, in October 2019, cemetery researcher Ray Reed informed the school district of the possibility that Ridgewood graves may remain at the King High campus, 6815 N 56th St. at Sligh Avenue.
After the graves were discovered, the school district removed a temporary structure from the cemetery’s footprint and fenced off the property.
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Architect Jerel McCants then designed the memorial that depicts dove’s wings, which are “the symbol of the soul’s release from its earth-bound duty,” according to a news release issued by the school district. The memorial’s reflection pond “emphasizes the importance of life, as water is pumped up the pedestal and empties into the pond giving action and movement, constantly regenerating.”
As one of the keynote speakers at the memorial unveiling, Lewis complimented the design but then pivoted. She told those in attendance that they need to speak up for the Black community that was voiceless when the cemeteries were erased during an era of segregation.
“The time is now for the city of Tampa,” she said during her speech. “The time is now for Hillsborough County. The time is now, Hillsborough County School District. The time is now for Black folks’ voice to be heard in the city. It is time for ... reparations, compensation and appropriations.”
Lewis told the Times that she wants the Black community to receive property for community centers, Black history museums and other facilities that benefit them.
“We’re the only ones” whose cemeteries they keep finding, she said during the speech. “They keep erasing our history. … They act like we didn’t even matter, like we didn’t even contribute the blood, the sweat, and the tears to help build this city. ... If that makes you feel some kind of way, I hope that maybe God is trying to tell you something.”