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Radar finds 145 graves buried beneath King High School in Tampa

Ridgewood Cemetery, a pauper’s burial ground from the mid-20th century, was sold to the school district as part of the property where King was later built.
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. [GeoView]
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. [GeoView]
Published Nov. 20
Updated Nov. 20

TAMPA — Ground penetrating radar has located 145 caskets at the southeast corner of the King High School campus.

The caskets, buried 3 to 5 feet deep, are part of a mid-20th century paupers burial ground known as Ridgewood Cemetery. Today, the one-acre site is open land with one small building, used for the school’s agricultural program.

“These appear to be coffins or voids in the soil where coffins have decayed over time,” school Superintendent Jeff Eakins said at a news conference Wednesday. The announcement came during a meeting of the district’s Historical Response Committee, set up in response to news King High may have been built on a cemetery.

This is the second time in less than three months that a forgotten cemetery has been found in the Tampa Bay area.

In August, in reaction to a Tampa Bay Times report, archaeologists went looking for and then found nearly 130 caskets from the all-black, segregation-era Zion Cemetery under a portion of the Robles Park Village housing projects in Tampa.

RELATED: Read how the Zion Cemetery story unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times.

Records indicate that there were 250 to 268 burials at Ridgewood, Eakins said. Nearly all were African-American.

“I am sick of this,” Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP and a member of the Historical Response Committee, said Wednesday as she fought back tears. “This hurts deeply. It was hate toward people who looked like me. It deeply saddens me that people can hate you this much, that they can treat you less than."

Yvette Lewis, center, President Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP speaks during the Ridgewood Cemetery Committee meeting while Reverend Greg Gay of Mt. Olive AME Church, left, and State Sen. (D) Darryl Rouson looks on. Ground penetrating radar has located 145 graves on the southern ground of King High School, buried 3 to 5 feet deep. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Tampa opened Ridgewood Cemetery in 1942.

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, it was forgotten.

Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger called it a deliberate act.

“Certainly, back in that day, profits were put over people, especially people who look like me," said Shamburger, who is black.

Then in October, cemetery researcher Ray Reed informed the school district of the possibility that Ridgewood graves may remain at the King High campus, 6815 North 56th St. at Sligh Avenue.

It was also Reed who tipped off the Times to historic records that led to the discovery of forgotten Zion Cemetery. The Times identified the location of the cemetery and found the names of 382 people buried there.

Since then, archaeologists have confirmed that nearly 800 people were buried in Zion between 1901 and 1929. They believe further investigation of the 2½-acre site will reveal more bodies.

The discovery of Zion emboldened Reed to call the school district, he said.

“This is one of those situations where being proven right is a no win,” Reed said. “You end up learning that this community was so twisted.”

Others have come forward with reports of lost cemeteries in the months since Zion was found.

Those who grew up in the former African-American community of Clearwater Heights believe unmarked graves from an early 20th century cemetery still lie beneath an empty lot that is now part of the FrankCrum Staffing campus, 100 S. Missouri Ave. in Clearwater.

In addition, historians believe that the lost College Hill Cemetery for Cubans and African-Americans occupies a vacant parcel of land that now is part of the Italian Club Cemetery on the outskirts of Ybor City.

RELATED: Clearwater might also have a lost African American cemetery

RELATED: College Hill might be a cemetery lost within another cemetery

The school district initially placed Ridgewood Cemetery at the southeast corner of the King High campus, based on appraisal surveys conducted before the district purchased the land in 1959. But the city of Tampa later provided records placing the cemetery at the northeast corner — now occupied by the school gym and the main parking area.

Superintendent Eakins said ground penetrating radar also was trained on the northeast corner and no graves were found.

“Every record we have found indicates all the burials were done in the same small area,” Eakins said.

On the King High School campus, red lines mark cemetery boundaries and pink boxes the caskets revealed by ground penetrating radar. The Ridgewood Cemetery for paupers was established in the 1940s and later forgotten. [GeoView]

As for why more than 100 graves are unaccounted for, Eakins offered five possible explanations: Ground penetrating radar is an imperfect technology and might have missed some caskets; some coffins may have decayed to the point they can no longer be detected; some remains might lie beneath the small agricultural workshop on the site or relocated to another cemetery; and coffins housing remains of children might be too small to register.

“We are now making plans to remove that building,” Eakins said.

As many as 77 of those buried at Ridgewood were infants or small children, according to records, Eakins said.

“We know that those parents were doing the best that they could,” said Bob Morrison, a member of the Historical Response Committee. "Those parents were left with little or no option other than trying to find a way to honor that young talent would never have the opportunity to reach its full potential.”

The school district has delivered its findings to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Florida State Archaeologist. Under state law, Eakins said, the agencies can take possession of the land or turn it back to the school district.

Eakins expects the agencies will take 30 days to review the report. Meantime, the response committee will discuss what it sees as the best future option for the cemetery property.

State statute allows remains to be moved to another cemetery.

Jeff Moates, a committee member and regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, told the Times that state law also requires the property owner to provide access to descendants of those buried there if the land remains an active cemetery.

At Zion Cemetery, the Tampa Housing Authority — owner of about half the property — plans to remove five apartment buildings there and turn it into a memorial park.

Lewis of the NAACP wants to see the same approach for Ridgewood Cemetery.

“I don’t care what the dollar amount is,” she told the committee. “We have got to recognize the spirits and the souls, and the blood sweat and tears that those people have contributed to this city.”

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