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Officials Confirm 145 Graves Found At King High School In Tampa

Hillsborough School Superintendent Jeff Eakins confirms 145 coffins were found on King High School property. WAYNE GARCIA/WUSF Public Media

King High School is the site of an African-American cemetery, Hillsborough County school officials confirmed Wednesday.

In addition, County Commissioner Les Miller told school officials and black civic leaders gathered for the announcement that efforts are underway to confirm another lost cemetery, in the Port Tampa neighborhood next to MacDill Air Force Base.

GeoView Inc., the geophysical consulting firm brought in last month to survey the grounds, located 145 graves in a fenced-off area on the southeast part of the property, officials said.

The officials, including Hillsborough School Superintendent Jeff Eakins, said that as many as 77 of those found buried in the lost Ridgewood Cemetery are infants or small children. They anticipate the number will rise as radar cannot discover all burials.

The radar survey found the coffins were buried from three to five feet deep.

Eakins revealed the findings of ground-penetrating radar tests by stepping to a lectern and announcing, "We believe we have found Ridgewood cemetery. We remain committed to respecting the individuals who are buried there and their families."

The map shows the campus along Sligh Avenue, and then further south the outlines of the Ridgewood Cemetery, with a small building atop part of it.
The results of radar studies at King High School revealed 177 coffins on the southern boundary of the school. Credit: GeoView/Hillsborough County School District.

He was flanked by members of the Historical Response Committee, mostly composed of civic leaders from Tampa's black community.

The Hillsborough County coroner and state archaeologists now have 30 days to determine what will be done with Ridgewood Cemetery and whether it will be returned to the school board for some form of memorialization.

School officials said they will do whatever it takes to make things right.

Hillsborough NAACP president Yvette Lewis, who attended the announcement, said she was “ashamed” and that it was a dark day in the area’s history.

"For God's sake, I am sick of this," she said as the response committee met after the announcement. "This hurts deeply that we can be thrown away. Nobody's telling these people's history and these people's story. Unbelievable. And I was born and raised in this city, and I'm ashamed of the city right about now. I'm ashamed."

The scans were to have been taken “within about six inches” of the surface, company president Mike Wightman said in October.

At that time, it was suspected King High School – which opened in 1960 – was built on graves of people buried in the 1940s and ‘50s.

READ MORE: Tampa Bay Times reporter talks about discovering the lost Zion Cemetery

Investigators continue to determine if hundreds of bodies are buried in what was once Zion Cemetery, about seven miles southwest of the school. That was believed to be Tampa Bay’s first African American cemetery.

Two men on a field at King High School use a machine that resembles a lawn mower to use radar to locate coffins.
In October, workers with GeoView run a ground-penetrating radar machine over the campus of King High School to look for possible graves. Credit: THOMAS IACOBUCCI/WUSF Public Media

Coupled with the Zion Cemetery discovery, and potential new discoveries of other former African American cemeteries that were long ago forgotten, the Ridgewood confirmation made for a somber atmosphere for the committee members. School officials promised to make it a teachable moment for all of their students.

"This committee is going to probably have to have more to deal with that King High School because there's probably more to come," said County Commissioner Les Miller, who is chairman of the Historical Response Committee. "And your responsibility is to educate those young people out there. What happened, why did this happen? Even if it hurts, even if it hurts as to why it happened to African American community back at that particular point in time. They need to understand."

For many in the committee, the discovery was a reminder of how racism shaped today's community.

"I have to say it: it just was hatred towards people who look like me," Lewis said. "And it just deeply saddens me that people can hate you that much that they can just treat you less than (others). And then we forget about these people."

A 2-D ground penetrating radar representation shows in black and white sixteen curved spikes where suspected graves were found at King High.
A two-dimensional representation of 16 suspected graves found at King High School, found by using ground-penetrating radar. Credit: GeoView/Hillsborough County School District.

Bob Morrison of Morrison and Associates, also a committee member, said that it is vital to learn exactly how the cemetery was lost.

"A component of that learning opportunity, in my opinion, is how this happened, and why it continues to happen to people that look like myself and others around this table," Morrison said. "And why the only burials that we are finding unmarked, and grown over and ignored, are ours. And so I think a component of this has to be, why is this happening? How is this happening? And even if this is a long time in the past, we need to figure out the records and look at it."

READ MORE: Download the full GeoView report on the discovery at King High School.

This satellite view outlines 177 graves found under a section of the King High School campus in Tampa.
Both views show 145 individual graves located by radar in what was once Ridgewood Cemetery, outlined in purple on these aerial views. Credit: GeoView/Hillsborough County School District

Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.
I wasn't always a morning person. After spending years as a nighttime sports copy editor and page designer, I made the move to digital editing in 2000. Turns out, it was one of the best moves I've ever made.
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