Tampa's history rediscovered as development unearths forgotten cemeteries

Little by little, the city of Tampa is unearthing its history that was buried, in some cases, for more than a century.

The current effort is at King High School, where archeologists are trying to find Ridgewood Cemetery, which is an old burial ground where about 250 paupers were laid to rest in the mid-1900s.

"Their contributions to the city are important as well," said Rodney Kite-Powell, the director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa History Center. "We can learn how people treated those that were disadvantaged at the time and that certainly informs our history and we can learn about those personalities, learn about those people and, in a sense, honor them in a way that they hadn't been in the past."

The land that included the Ridgewood Cemetery was sold in 1957 and the school was eventually built on top of it.

The attempt to find those graves is the latest in a renewed effort to rediscover parts of Tampa that have been lost to time.

In 1980, construction on the Fort Brooke garage resulted in the first discovery of buried remains, likely consisting of soldiers from the original Fort Brooke, which was established in 1824. The construction of the Tampa Convention Center led to a similar discovery.

In 2018, crews working on the Water Street Project found an old military burial ground, known as the Estuary Cemetery, which might have also been connected to Fort Brooke, Kite-Powell said.

Earlier this year, historians were focused on Zion Cemetery where crews have discovered more than 100 remains. Zion Cemetery is believed to be Tampa's first African-American burial ground before the Robles Park housing project was built.

Experts said there was such a rush to develop the city, preservation wasn't a focus.

"Attitudes change pretty rapidly and so what we see now as a horrible [injustice], people would just see as doing the most convenient thing, the most expedient thing. And we can see it as a tragedy," Kite-Powell said. "Their contributions are often forgotten and when you forget the people, you forget what they did and so being able to remember the people is a way to highlight their contributions to our history."

City Council Chairman Luis Viera is hopeful Tampa continues the effort to remember its past.

"[We can] work with local leaders -- whether it's the school board, whether it's the Tampa Housing Authority -- so that we can encourage the right kind of steps taken to respect those who didn't get respect when they were with us," Viera said. "Today we need to make sure that we give them respect. We give them respect by not only finding out what happened but also being able to adopt the lessons of their lives and adopt the lessons of their death to the everyday actions that we take as elected officials."

Kite-Powell said it's unclear how many more graves will be found.