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The search for graves begins on King High School campus

Preliminary answers from the ground-penetrating radar could come as soon as next week.
Scott Purcell, a senior geophysicist with GeoView, left, and Mike Wightman, president of GeoView, use ground-penetrating radar to scan a portion of King High School campus in search for Ridgewood Cemetery. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Scott Purcell, a senior geophysicist with GeoView, left, and Mike Wightman, president of GeoView, use ground-penetrating radar to scan a portion of King High School campus in search for Ridgewood Cemetery. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 23, 2019

TAMPA ― Pink flag stakes outline a 1½-acre area in the southern portion of King High School’s property, marking one of two places where a forgotten paupers cemetery from the mid-20th century might still lie.

To learn whether the 250 or so graves that made up Ridgewood Cemetery were ever moved, ground-penetrating radar fixed to a rolling cart will be sending signals into the earth in search of reflections the shape of caskets and human remains.

The work started there Wednesday and continues through the end of the week. Results should be known next week, said Mike Wightman, president of contractor GeoView of St. Petersburg. At that point, archaeologists will review the work to determine whether any reflections are graves.

“We will provide an image where we will be able to say we found something,” Wightman said. Even it has the right dimensions, though, "we can’t go and say, ‘Yes, this is absolutely a grave.’ ... We have to say, 'What else could it be?”

If nothing is found in the southern area — mostly open land used for the school’s agricultural program — the radar will scan a northern portion of the property that now is the site of a parking lot and the school gymnasium.

An appraisal performed on the property in 1959 before it was purchased for a public school indicated Ridgewood Cemetery was on the south end of today’s campus. But older city archives put it to the north.

The city of Tampa opened Ridgewood Cemetery at 56th Street and Sligh Avenue in 1942. It was used as a burial ground for the indigent — mostly African-Americans but other people, as well.

The city sold a 40-acre plot that included the cemetery to a private company in 1957 and that company sold it to the school district in 1959.

Records from a Hillsborough County cemetery survey conducted in 1985 by the Florida Genealogical Society indicate the people buried in Ridgewood were later moved to city-owned Woodlawn Cemetery. But Woodlawn’s original records were lost in a fire in 1986.

Since news of the forgotten cemetery broke Friday, "the kids at the school have been very respectful,” said Corries Culpepper, director of safety and risk management for the Hillsborough County School District. “You’re talking about someone’s loved ones who were placed to rest here. We want to be respectful.”

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