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Records show King High gym may have been built atop paupers cemetery

Conflicting versions emerge of where Ridgewood Cemetery was located. One thing is certain: It was ignored or forgotten.
A pauper's cemetery was established at the northeast corner of property now occupied by King High School in Tampa, location of the school gymnasium (tall building at top left) and the main parking lot. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
A pauper's cemetery was established at the northeast corner of property now occupied by King High School in Tampa, location of the school gymnasium (tall building at top left) and the main parking lot. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 22, 2019
Updated Oct. 23, 2019

TAMPA — The search for a forgotten pauper’s cemetery has moved from one side of the King High School campus to the other.

Now, based on city records obtained Tuesday by the Tampa Bay Times, it appears some 250 people may have been buried on land where the school gymnasium now stands.

The Hillsborough County School District announced Friday that it had learned the old Ridgewood Cemetery may have been located at the southeast corner of the King High campus, now the site of one small building and open land used for the school agricultural program.

The announcement was based on appraisal surveys conducted before the school district purchased the land in 1959.

But 1930s-era records from the city of Tampa place the cemetery at the northeast corner of the campus — land now occupied by the school gym and the main parking area.

Surveys using ground penetrating radar were scheduled to begin Wednesday at the campus’ southeast corner to determine if there still are graves there. That work will continue as planned, then shift if necessary, school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Tuesday.

“Our district will follow all leads, and will first start scanning in the south end of the property as previously planned," Arja said in a statement to the Times. “If no signs of a cemetery are found, the radar scanning will move to the northeast corner.”

Also unclear is how, through the years, officials with the school district and city of Tampa allowed the cemetery to disappear and new construction to move forward there.

RELATED: Officials investigating possible indigent cemetery near King High School

The city records help confirm the existence of Ridgewood Cemetery and point toward its location.

The 40-acre site that’s now home to King High, at Sligh Avenue and 56th Street, once was known as the Robles tract.

Carving out five acres in the northeast corner of the tract “as a burial place for the pauper dead” is recommended in a letter sent from the city’s Parks and Cemeteries Committee to the City Council on Feb. 23, 1937.

On that same day, according to City Council minutes, a resolution approving the cemetery location was signed by council president B.H. Emerson.

A committee recommended in 1936 that the Tampa City Council establish a pauper's cemetery on land where King High School would be built more than two decades later. The council approved the plan. [CITY OF TAMPA | City of Tampa]

Some 250 people were buried at Ridgewood Cemetery from 1942-1954, according to city records.

By 1957, when the city sold the Robles tract, burials had taken up one acre of land within the five acres.

“It does seem more likely that it is in the northeast corner than anywhere else,” Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center said after reviewing the documents with the Times.

It will take ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint the location of the acre and determine whether it is now parking lots or the gym.

"GPR can run over a parking lot,” said Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network and part of a team that recently found 127 caskets in the long-forgotten Zion Cemetery along North Florida Ave.

But if the graves are under a school building, Moates said, the radar might not be able to detect them.

RELATED: Graves may have been moved from cemetery at King High, records show

Still, it remains possible that all the graves at Ridgewood were moved.

Records from a Hillsborough County cemetery survey conducted in 1985 by the Florida Genealogical Society indicates those people buried in Ridgewood were moved to city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery.

In 1957, the city sold the Robles tract — including the Ridgewood section — to a private company. In 1959, the company sold the tract to the school district.

The School Board approved preliminary architectural plans in August 1959, and before the end of the year, hired a firm to dig a well and sought bids for earth moving equipment.

King High School opened in fall 1960.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the records that place Ridgewood Cemetery to the northeast of the King High School campus.


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