TAMPA — A ground-penetrating radar cart will roll across a corner of King High School starting Wednesday to help determine whether some 250 paupers graves from the mid-20th century were moved before the property was developed.
But evidence has emerged in the past few days indicating that the people buried at the forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery might have been relocated to the city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery, 3412 N Ola Ave.
“There is a very good chance they are in Woodlawn,” said Drew Smith, an associate librarian specializing in genealogy at the University of South Florida.
Hillsborough County school district officials announced Friday they have learned that part of the King High campus, 6815 N 56th St., once was a cemetery. They were tipped off by a cemetery researcher, about two months after archaeologists — acting on news reports in the Tampa Bay Times — learned that bodies remain in the forgotten Zion Cemetery along North Florida Avenue.
Smith bases his belief that the Ridgewood bodies could have been moved on an eight-volume set from an unofficial Hillsborough County cemetery survey conducted in 1985 by the Florida Genealogical Society.
Many of the names listed in city records as buried at Ridgewood also appear in the Genealogical Society’s listings for Woodlawn, indicating the bodies were moved there, Smith said. The city records cover burials from 1942-1954 at Ridgewood, on the corner of 56th Street and Sligh Avenue.
The Genealogical Society’s survey is based on two sources, Smith said — members walked the cemeteries and recorded grave markers and also reviewed available government records. Those names from government records that they did not verify in their visits are marked with an asterisk.
The Woodlawn volume, said Smith, “thanks the cemetery clerk who allowed them to check the original record books for those graves without markers.”
Smith took a few names he found in the city records for Ridgewood and looked them up in the Genealogical Society’s Woodlawn book. He found them there, too, marked with an asterisk and listed as part of Woodlawn’s paupers area where graves are unmarked.
Some years after publishing its eight-volume survey, the Genealogical Society later added the information to FindAGrave, a national online database that enables the public to search and add cemetery records.
The Times plugged 50 Ridgewood names into FindAGrave and all came up with Woodlawn as their burial place.
A fire destroyed Woodlawn’s paper records in 1986, Smith said. They later were reconstructed, said Melissa Consagra, the city of Tampa’s cemetery coordinator. But it was Hillsborough County that handled burials in Woodlawn’s paupers area up through the 1950s "and a little bit later,” Consagra said.
The county will search for those records, spokesman Todd Pratt told the Times.
Is it possible that the genealogical society erred, recording “Woodlawn” because its researchers might never have heard of the long-forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery?
“Genealogists typically don’t make those types of assumptions,” said Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center.
Still, he added, “I’m going to contradict myself. They could have made a mistake."
There were no news reports about exhuming the bodies at Ridgewood, an undertaking that likely would generate coverage of some kind, Kite-Powell noted.
“I hope they are in Woodlawn,” Kite-Powell said. “I’d say slightly below 50-50 that they are. The GPR should let us know for certain."
There was no news coverage, either, about moving bodies from the forgotten Zion Cemetery — believed to be Tampa’s first African-American burial ground. So far, archaeologists have discovered 127 coffins on part of the 2½-acre Zion property and they believe some 800 people were interred there.
Archaeologists will focus on the southern portion of the King High campus, areas now used for agricultural programs.
“One of the areas is land with nothing on it,” school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. “The other area has a small permanent agricultural workshop, some chicken coops and a fenced area for animals.”
At the Friday news conference, Ridgewood Cemetery was described as a paupers area for African-Americans but Kite-Powell has found evidence that a few white people were buried there, too.
The city sold the one acre-cemetery to a private company in 1957 as part of a larger 40-acre deal. The School Board then purchased the 40 acres in 1959.
The School Board’s deed notes that a cemetery is located on the property but no sign of it exists today. There may been another indication in 1959.
That’s the word from a man who said his father worked for a private engineering company that surveyed the property in 1959.
“They found two or three markers,” said James Tervort, 68, son of the late Lester Tervort.
The grave markers were shaped like flowerpots, Tervort said, and included the names of the deceased. A grove of oak trees also stood near the cemetery, and Tervort would often sit under the trees when he later attended King High.
“The trees marked it as a special place,” Tervort said. “Then a few years ago I noticed the trees were gone.”