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More lost cemeteries will be found, historians say

Three have been discovered in just the past year. City and county officials have been urged to get out in front of the challenge.

TAMPA — For the second time in four months, an advisory committee has been formed to deal with the possibility that a lost cemetery has been found in Tampa.

There will be more of them, the new group was told during its first meeting Monday by Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center.

“This is not going to be the last cemetery we are sitting in a room and talking about,” Kite-Powell said. “I am certain of that.”

RELATED: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

The new committee was established by the Hillsborough County School District in the wake of news that a forgotten, mid-20th century pauper’s cemetery might still occupy part of today’s King High School campus. The committee held its first meeting at School District headquarters downtown.

Earlier this year, the Tampa Housing Authority established an advisory committee after the Tampa Bay Times revealed that some 800 people may have been buried on land now occupied, in part, by the Robles Park Village public housing project.

Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center says at a meeting Monday that more forgotten cemeteries are likely to be discovered in the Tampa area. There have been three in just the past year, he noted. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Perhaps local officials should take a more proactive approach given the likelihood that more forgotten burial grounds will emerge, said Jeff Moates, regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

“Whether it’s the city and the county and the school board and whoever all the players are,” Moates said. “There are likely to be several other cemeteries.”

Three forgotten burial grounds have been discovered locally in the past year or so.

In September 2018, during development of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project, archaeologists uncovered three grave shafts with human remains from the 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery north of modern day Channelside Drive.

Strategic Property Partners, developers of Water Street, has refused to comment about the identity of the remains. But state records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that the developers have met with two potential cemetery stakeholders — the U.S. Army and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Next came Zion Cemetery, revealed June 23 in a Times special report and confirmed two months later through ground-penetrating radar with the discovery of some 130 graves along North Florida Avenue in Tampa. Zion was believed to be Tampa’s first African-American cemetery.

The School District announced on Oct. 18 that it had learned Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown was located on property later used to develop King High School, at Sligh Avenue and 56th Street. Some 250 people were buried at Ridgewood. Surveys using ground penetrating radar are under way at King High now and results are expected this week or next.

“This is the third we have talked about in the last 12 months,” Kite-Powell said. “There have to be more. People have lived in Tampa for a very long time."

Scott Purcell, a senior geophysicist with GeoView, left, and Mike Wightman, president of GeoView use ground penetrating radar technology to scan a portion of King High campus in search for Ridgewood Cemetery. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

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

RELATED: Who was buried beneath Water Street Tampa? Developer still won’t say.

RELATED: Records show King High gym may have been built atop paupers cemetery.

Cemeteries were built in rural areas in the early 1900s, he said, and overtaken as the urban core expanded. Caskets may have been left underground, intentionally or unintentionally, as land was developed.

School Board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger questioned whether more African-American cemeteries will be found. Ridgewood was for all races but primarily was used as a burial place for African-Americans.

“There are only a handful, if that, of black cemeteries near Tampa,” Shamburger said. “Certainly, there have been more black people that have passed away in Tampa than what is represented in terms of cemeteries.”

Kite-Powell said the local historian community is trying to identify and find other lost cemeteries. As a starting point, they are scouring city, county, newspaper and death records to find mentions of burial grounds that no longer exist.

Local churches also should check their records, suggested Larry Roundtree, pastor of the 117-year-old New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.

“There are other churches in the area that are even older" than mine, Roundtree said at Monday’s meeting. The records might “shed some light into these cemeteries and other cemeteries that have not been identified as of yet.”

The Ridgewood Cemetery committee is made up of school district representatives, historians, archaeologists, civil rights activists and elected officials. The committee will decide how to proceed if a burial ground is found at King High.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, has introduced a bill to form a state task force that would search for lost African-American cemeteries. The task force would receive $500,000 in initial funding.

Cruz told the Ridgewood committee she thinks more money may be allocated now that it appears “we are going to continue uncovering lost cemeteries throughout Florida.”

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