The radar-aided discovery of the former city cemetery, which was willfully disregarded in the late 1950s and then sold, has this community reeling. Ridgewood is the second such burial ground in recent months to be identified; the other, Zion Cemetery, had been cleared for a housing project mid-century.
And there could be more sites. The military is investigating a wooded lot at MacDill Air Force Base that once may have been the final resting place for black residents.
“People are hurt, they’re angry and they have questions,” said the Rev. Larry Roundtree of the New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa. “No one can claim ignorance of this. The city knew back then that these graves were there.”
With the Hillsborough County school district’s somber confirmation of the Ridgewood Cemetery last week, officials are trying to decide what to do to honor the dead. Historians, archaeologists and genealogists are working to find descendants of known names.
Civic leaders say the city and state both need to confront the issue, which evokes an era when racism followed black people even after death.
“You’re going back to Jim Crow, when a lot of people just didn’t care about these places,” County Commissioner Les Miller said Sunday. “They mowed over them, moved them, built on them.”
Miller grew up in Tampa but didn’t attend King High School for a simple reason: He is black, and the school back then was all white. He’s not surprised that school and city officials in the late 1950s and early ’60s decided to build the campus on the property, even knowing that a corner of that land held the graves of nearly 300 black people.
“We can say that we’re shocked and that it never should have happened, but it did, and now it’s up to us to move forward and memorialize these folks,” he said.
Complicating those efforts is the lack of records to identify who is buried in the graves.
Pastors at African American churches across the county are asking their members to search through family Bibles for mentions of burials at the cemetery and to think back on generational stories that might yield similar clues.
“I made a clarion call to my congregation, and other pastors are doing the same, to try and put names to these people so we can humanize them again,” said Roundtree, whose church is just five miles away. “We want to restore to them the dignity they have not received for all these years.”
The first detective work was done by a local historian, Ray Reed, who partnered with the Tampa Bay Times to uncover Zion in August. He alerted school officials in October that King High probably was built on the graves of poor black people.
The district is rushing to make things right. Within 24 hours of hearing from Reed, the school board fenced off the grassy lot behind the stadium and hired a local geotechnical firm to use ground-penetrating radar to examine the site.
The firm’s findings confirmed Reed’s information. A haunting detail emerged last week, after school officials went through historical records of the property: Of the several hundred people believed to be buried there, 77 were infants and children, whose caskets probably wouldn’t show up on the radar scan.
“Their smaller coffins would be difficult to locate by scanning, especially after this much time has passed,” the school board said.
GeoView President Mike Wightman, who operated the radar equipment, noted the special set of circumstances. Some coffins lie just three feet below the surface. “It’s very emotional,” he said. “You know that here is a person who has not only passed, but a person who has been forgotten.”
The initial research showed that more graves may be at the site, but some have decayed underground and wouldn’t be detected without exhumation. Any markers that told who was buried there are gone, lost to time, nature and intentional neglect.
Ridgewood Cemetery was designated as a pauper’s cemetery by the city of Tampa in the early 1940s. At least 280 people — mostly African Americans — were interred between 1942 and 1954. The cemetery covered one acre of a 40-acre property on what was then the outskirts of town.
The city sold the property to a group of developers in 1957, who in turn sold it to the school board in 1959. In each transaction the cemetery was noted, according to records found recently. But that didn’t stop the school district from using the property to build King High School in 1960.
“We’re dealing with a tragedy,” Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins said, his voice betraying his emotion. “It’s a situation where people’s lives, it’s like they’ve been forgotten. We want to make sure we bring their voices back in some way.”
Eakins said the district is doing what it can to respect the site, which it used at one point for an agricultural program. Curriculum will be designed around its history once more is revealed.
A review of school board minutes dating back nearly 60 years didn’t show public discussions about the African American burial ground. Yet its existence was widely known at the time, Eakins acknowledged.
“There’s no way that any leadership at that time did not know about it,” Eakins said of his predecessors. “I don’t want to presume anything; I wasn’t even born in the 1950s. But you’re looking at the way African Americans were treated in the Jim Crow era, and the fact that they were not even respected in their burials.”
Last month, the district formed a Historical Response Committee made up of city leaders, pastors, academics and others to consider what should be done.
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell is on the committee. The Democratic lawmaker, who represents Hillsborough County, has proposed legislation in Tallahassee that would require the state to identify, investigate and protect sites across Florida that are suspected of being abandoned cemeteries.
“I want to push back on the narrative of the forgotten graves,” Driskell said. “It’s less an issue of being forgotten and more of an issue that these places were willfully ignored. It brings to light the context of the times when this was acceptable, when the authorities thought it was okay to neglect the sanctity of black bodies.”