TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Nestled in between the shady oak trees, behind a brick-pillared fence on the sunny grounds of King High School, is a place no one realized existed.
“This is a hurt that is hard to heal,” sighed Yvette Lewis.
90 years ago, the city of Tampa bought the land at North 56th Street and East Sligh Avenue and called it Ridgewood Cemetery, using it to bury African Americans and those living in poverty, like many of the historic black cemeteries currently being “rediscovered” around Hillsborough County.
But unlike those cemeteries, the city sold this approximately one-acre plot to Hillsborough County Public Schools, who proceeded to build King High.
“I was shocked, upset,” exclaimed Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County chapter. “Taking the nature of the climate back then, it didn’t surprise me.”
And for decades, the land went largely untouched, part of the agricultural program space for the students. But three-and-a-half years ago, concerned citizens told the district there may be a cemetery there.
“When you lay your loved one down to rest,” Lewis said. “You expect them to rest.”
After painstakingly mapping and scanning, a team found nearly 150 burials intact underground. Researchers estimated there were more than 250 total burial sites based on city and county records.
“Back then, they just stood there and they couldn’t say anything,” Lewis said about the African Americans at the time of the cemetery’s sale. “They knew there was a cemetery there but they were not allowed to say.”
Part of the healing process, Lewis hopes, begins Monday.
“I want them to be able to feel a connection,” espoused Jerel McCants.
McCants was the architect of the new memorial in the southern corner of King High that will be unveiled.
“One of the themes was the hands of a dove,” said McCants. “In a lot of spirituality, the dove is significant. It signifies carrying or lifting the spirit up to the heavenly realm.”
His dream is a young King High student, looking for some calm and inspiration, who walks over and learns about their city’s history and finds peace at the geometrical wings and bubbling spring water falling off them.
“This is a step towards the right direction for the families that have laid their loved ones down there to rest,” Lewis said.
The hope is this memorial provides a voice to those who couldn’t save the cemetery decades ago.
“It’s nice the school board has been able to pay tribute to those people that were found on their grounds,” McCants said.
McCants’ attention to detail shines throughout the sculpture. All the dimensions of the memorial are divisible by seven and the wings are set at just the right angle to produce a rainbow with the water spraying off.
“It’s a cemetery that’s used in a nontraditional sense,” McCants explained. “I wanted to kind of make it more of a place that could be celebrated.”
And celebrate the community will, as generations beyond those buried beneath come to find tranquility above.