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Officials investigating possible indigent cemetery near King High School

Much is unclear at this point, say Hillsborough school officials, who promise to be open and transparent with the community,

TAMPA — Hillsborough County might have another long-forgotten African-American cemetery, and this one could be on the grounds of King High School.

School Board Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said a resident alerted district leaders to the possibility late Thursday.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Shamburger said, appearing at a news conference Friday afternoon with Superintendent Jeff Eakins. She said they are working furiously to determine if it is true.

The revelation comes less than two months after archaeologists discovered at least 127 coffins from Zion Cemetery are under a portion of the Robles Park Village housing projects. They believe hundreds more lie under the 2½-acre all-black, segregation-era burial ground’s footprint, which extends to warehouse property stretching across the 3700 block of N. Florida Ave. Nearly 30 families are now being relocated.

The archaeologists were hired by the Tampa Housing Authority in response to a Tampa Bay Times report in June questioning if Zion was exhumed when it disappeared nearly a century ago.

RELATED: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

Information about the King High School land came from Ray Reed, the same cemetery researcher who asked the Times to investigate what became of Zion.

“I wanted the school district to get its ducks in a row,” Reed told the Times in a text message.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said, “My immediate feeling? Shock. Hurt. Here we go again. We are uncovering our past. What’s next?”

A map of the King High School land. [Tampa Bay Times]

Historians believe the burial ground at King was originally called Ridgewood Cemetery.

In 1942, according to Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center, the city of Tampa approved the Ridgewood name for a cemetery at 56th Street and Sligh Avenue, where King High now sits.

The city owned Ridgewood through 1957. Around 230 people were buried there, according to cemetery records listed on the city’s website. Reed said the number might be higher than that.

In 1957, the city sold the land to another buyer who sold it to the school district in 1959. King opened in 1960.

When the city of Tampa was selling the property in 1957, Mayor Nick Nuccio told reporters it included Ridgewood Cemetery.

“We put them on notice the cemetery was there and to keep it there,” Nuccio said. “Naturally, they can take it to court.”

King High School has 1,780 students and one of the district’s first International Baccalaureate programs. If the 165-by-285-foot grave site is indeed on King property, it is on a southern portion, in an area now used for agricultural programs. School officials on Friday began moving the animals and equipment, and building temporary fencing to protect the site.

“We have already reached out to experts who can scan underneath the surface of the land,” Eakins said.

“We intend to be open and transparent with the community, and will provide updates as we have more information. We will show the highest level of respect for the individuals who may be buried in the cemetery, and their descendants.”

Scanning could begin as soon as Monday. “We want to rule in or rule out,” Eakins said.

The problem, district leaders say, is that documents contain conflicting information about where the burial site is located.

The deed from 1959 says the owner “shall and will assume any and all legal responsibility for the care, maintenance or disposition of that certain pauper cemetery located within the above described property.”

But an appraisal, written that same year, describes the burial site as “commencing 470 feet east of the southeast corner of the property on the south boundary.” Eakins said it is possible that the appraisal contained a simple wording error, and the writer meant “west” instead of “east.”

No grave markers would exist, Shamburger said, because it was a pauper’s field.

Rebecca O'Sullivan, Public Archaeology Coordinator II, West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times) [BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times]

Rebecca O’Sullivan, a University of South Florida archaeologist who was part of the team that found Zion Cemetery, said she believes the deed carries more weight.

And, in the case of Ridgewood, two deeds place it on the King property. In addition to the 1959 deed, there is one from 1957, when the city sold the land to the private owners.

“The actual deeds say it is on the property,” O’Sullivan said. “Those are the legal documents signed when a purchase is made."

Either way, school district leaders said they are determined to solve the mystery and then proceed respectfully. Eakins told reporters that “this is the most important topic right now in our district.”

A notice went out to King families, expressing the same sentiment while emphasizing it is too early to draw conclusions.

“We want to let you know the documents we have reviewed so far, including deeds and title, aerial maps and historical city records have CONFLICTING INFORMATION of exactly where this cemetery is and whether it’s on our property,” the letter said. “So we are taking steps to find out the truth.”