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Tax Collector scanning for a lost black cemetery beneath its Hillsborough Avenue office

Does an old black and white photo show grave markers were there? Or is it a fence?

A photograph from the 1930s could show graves on the side of the road where the Hillsborough Tax Collector now has an office at 2814 E Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.

There might be graves there, Tax Collector Doug Belden said Wednesday. Then again, he added, there might not.

But the tip that a lost black cemetery might still be on that property came from Ray Reed, the researcher whose information enabled the Hillsborough County School District to find forgotten Ridgewood Cemetery on King High School’s campus.

So Belden felt he had to act.

GeoView, the same geophysical services company that discovered the 145 Ridgewood graves, began scanning the tax collector property Saturday and will be done by end of the week, Belden said. Results will be available next week.

“We’re being proactive,” Belden said. “So far they have found no evidence” of graves.

There does appear to be a cross-shaped grave marker under a tree in the photo available online through the Hillsborough County library’s website.

But when the librarians at the John F. Germany Public Library downtown allowed the Tampa Bay Times to view the original negative of that photo, that cross appears to be a wooden post for a wire fence.

This old photo available online shows the portion of Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa where one of the county tax collector’s offices now stands. The same cemetery researcher whose tip helped the Hillsborough County School District find the lost Ridgewood Cemetery says there are grave markers in this photo and that caskets were never moved. The circle indicates a possible cross. [ Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. ]
There appears to be a cross-shaped grave marker on Hillsborough Avenue in an online photograph from the 1930s. But in the original negative, it appears to be a fence post. [ Paul Guzzo ]

On Wednesday, Reed took his claim to the Hillsborough County Commission meeting.

He read the names of some of the African Americans he believes were buried there. “Please do the right thing by them in 2020,” he told commissioners. "This is an abomination committed deliberately upon them.”

Besides providing the Ridgewood tip, researcher Reed also told the Tampa Bay Times about a lost African American burial ground named Zion Cemetery.

He’d seen it on death certificates, he said, but wondered where it was once located and what came of it.

The Times found the cemetery’s detailed history and its former location — the 3700 block of now-busy N Florida Ave. — but could not find evidence that the some 800 who were once buried there had been moved.

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

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Read how the story of Zion Cemetery has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

A portion of the Tampa Housing Authority’s Robles Park Village apartments sits on the former Zion land. Hired archaeologists have discovered nearly 150 caskets so far.

Tampa resident Ray Reed stands among several headstones dating back to the 20th century at the Cemetery for All People in Tampa. [ "BRONTE WITTPENN | TIMES" ]

But Reed’s primary focus over the years has been identifying those buried in the Cemetery for All People, known in the early 1900s as the Poor Farm Cemetery.

The cemetery at 901 N 22nd St. was a potter’s field, a place where people were buried when no one would pay for the work or claim the bodies.

A county list has 839 burials at the Cemetery for All People between 1906 and 1966, but there are many more. So Reed combs through death certificates for a mention of the cemetery and adds names to his own list, which he will one day give to the county.

He says he does it to provide dignity to those forgotten.

Reed believes the cemetery was for white people, and that there was another nearby for African Americans, because the two races would not have been buried together in that era of segregation.

The Cemetery for All People, Reed said, was once part of a larger 128-acre site bordered by 22nd and 30th streets and Hanna and Hillsborough avenues.

The potter’s field for African Americans, Reed told the Times via email Wednesday, was in front of the where Tax Collector’s Office is now located.

He told the Times that in 1950 the county commission made a motion to “move the County Hwy. Cemetery to 22nd St. By default, the cemetery to be moved would be" the African American one. But there is no evidence it was ever relocated.

Reed shared minutes from an October 10, 1950 commission meeting with the Times.

The motion was to move a “county cemetery" that was on 22nd Street, the same location as the Cemetery for All People.

A Tampa Tribune article published the next day says the motion was only to move the cemetery “farther back from the roadway” because it is “too close to the street.”

Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa History Center has never seen a potter’s field on maps of the area where the Tax Collector’s Office now sits.

What’s more, he said, it is possible that whites and blacks shared the same potter’s field.

Ridgewood Cemetery operated from 1942-1957 and was also a potter’s field, he said. While mostly African Americans were buried there, some whites were, too.

“That doesn’t mean there is not a cemetery there," Kite-Powell said. “Ground penetrating radar has been very good at locating cemeteries this year. It can also rule one out. We’ll know soon.”