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Tampa Bay’s duty to find lost cemeteries | Editorial

The searches are a solemn responsibility for public and private land owners.
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 in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, October 23, 2019. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 21

The discovery this week of a second lost cemetery in Tampa highlights the solemn duty that government and private land owners across the region have in accounting for these sacred grounds. Authorities said ground-penetrating radar had located 145 caskets on the campus of Hillsborough County’s King High School in what’s believed to be part of a 20th century pauper’s burial ground. With recent revelations that other lost cemeteries might exist on both sides of Tampa Bay, it’s time for a new collaborative spirit to honor these souls and to fill critical gaps in local history.

The Hillsborough County School District announced Wednesday that the caskets are buried 3 to 5 feet deep on the grounds of King High, in central Hillsborough, on land that was known formerly as Ridgewood Cemetery. The district bought the land from a private company in 1959, and while the deed makes note of the cemetery, its existence was forgotten over time. In October, researcher Ray Reed informed the district that Ridgewood graves may still remain. While records indicate there were 250 to 268 burials at Ridgewood - nearly all of them African-Americans - school superintendent Jeff Eakins said the approximately 120 graves unaccounted for could have been overlooked by the radar or be too small or deteriorated to register.

The school district deserves credit for working quickly to map the site and for creating a committee that brought community groups, city and county leaders and locally elected officials together to provide input in the search. The Tampa Housing Authority showed the same sensitivity and communication skills in the wake of a report by the Tampa Bay Times that led to the discovery this summer of nearly 130 caskets under a Tampa housing project that occupied the former site of the all-black, segregation-era Zion Cemetery.

The accounting of the people left behind, though, has only just begun. Wednesday’s announcement of the discovery at King High produced another bombshell - that another forgotten cemetery may be located on what’s now MacDill Air Force Base in South Tampa. Records show an African-American burial ground in Port Tampa now sits behind the base fence. A spokesman told the Times that MacDill is exploring the matter and that resources “will be allocated in the near future to either confirm or deny it is on the base."

Local, state and federal officials are setting the right example by taking a proactive approach. Now it’s time for two private property owners whose land is involved in separate cemetery queries to demonstrate the same urgency in finding the facts. In Tampa, restaurateur Richard Gonzmart - who owns part of the land once occupied by Zion Cemetery - has agreed to hire archaeologists to investigate his site and to make the findings public. In Pinellas County, a group of former Clearwater Heights residents has asked property owner Frank Crum Jr., to investigate whether his lot on Missouri Ave. is the site of a former African-American cemetery.

These government institutions have done the right thing. But everyone with a stake needs to be involved in resolving the fate of these lost cemeteries with the dignity the people buried there deserve.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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