The neighborhood on South Drive, in the shadow of U.S. 19, is not where you would expect to find a graveyard. But in this unincorporated area, between Clearwater and Safety Harbor, sits a forgotten holy ground to many.
It is the Safety Harbor African American Cemetery. Its fence is long gone, although a Boy Scout troop did dedicate a small gate several years ago. Up until last week, the grass was knee high. Snakes are easy to spot under the oak trees and air potato plants.
However, after years of neglect, Jacqueline Hayes is leading a project to restore the cemetery. Called the Safety Harbor African American Restoration Project, Hayes' impetus is her grandfather, Charlie Smith, who was the last person to be buried in the cemetery in 1973. Smith was a leader in the mid-20th century for the African American community. He was a builder who laid the bricks for Main Street and helped construct the St. James Hotel (now Safety Harbor Senior Living at 101 Main St.).
"I never met my grandfather. He and my mother stopped talking when she moved up to Massachusetts where I grew up. He did not want to have Yankee grandchildren,'' she said. "But I know what he did for Safety Harbor.''
Hayes, who works in administration for the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center, moved to the city in 2014 to serve as a caretaker for a sick family member. In February, she agreed to share her family's history at a community program. At the meeting, she met Lou Claudio, a local history buff who approached her with concerns about the cemetery.
Claudio, 64, first learned of the cemetery in 1997 when he took part in an American Legion-sponsored cleanup.
"I was struck by this little cemetery in the middle of a subdivision,'' he said. "And there is a history of African American cemeteries getting paved over or moved in this country, and I didn't want to see that happen here.''
Hayes was already familiar with the cemetery.
"My aunt, Goldie Banks, had talked about the cemetery to local media before she died a few years ago. She was scared it would be forgotten once her generation passed,'' Hayes said. "At that point, she was 94. ... When Lou showed me his information, he had a copy of the deed, my grandfather's name was on it. I thought, 'Okay, we really have to get this done.'"
The land was first owned by the Coachmans, one of Pinellas County's pioneer families.
Eventually, the surrounding area was purchased by Alfred and Louise Ehle, who built a subdivision. In 1951, the cemetery, just shy of an acre and titled "Lot 15," became the property of the St. Paul Helping Hand Society, an African-American organization with three officers, Smith, Son Brown and Isaac Banks. Two years later, the St. Paul group sold the property for $1 to the Safety Harbor Colored Community, which is still listed on the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's website as the official owner. Neither Hayes nor Claudio are aware of any other deed.
In early April, Hayes invited coworkers, friends and other residents to a meeting.
"It was a little heated at first, but that's what happens when you try to do something like this,'' she said. "People started to talk about things that happened (between blacks and whites) 30 years ago. I was thinking, 'Wait, they are bringing all this up now?' But, we kept talking. I told everyone this is about our community now, not about the past.''
On April 22, under Hayes' direction, the group held its first cleanup, and although the cemetery is outside the city limits, Safety Harbor agreed to assist by picking up the bags of debris.
Claudio was thrilled.
"Jacqueline has a dynamic personality,'' he said. "I think another important thing about this is that we are looking to turn around this history of segregation and this (the cemetery project) is our counter argument. We are showing we belong together.''
In the months to come, Hayes is aiming to create a nonprofit entity. She already has put together a board of directors.
"Once we have nonprofit status we will fund raise and go through (legal channels) to gain ownership and make sure it is kept up with from now into the future,'' she said.
Claudio and Hayes plan to meet with the city managers of Safety Harbor and Clearwater and hope the county will consider a partnership.
Commissioner Charlie Justice said he plans on discussing the cemetery "with our Historic Preservation staff soon.''
Longtime Safety Harbor resident Tommie Davis, with several members of his family buried in the cemetery, has also agreed to help. On a recent Friday, he stood in the southeast corner and recalled his father's funeral in 1961.
"I was eight, and I remember it was a Sunday. All funerals were held on that day back then,'' said Davis, 66. "But rain had made a puddle in the hole for my father's coffin. My mother did not want him buried in the water. So we came back the next day to bury him. My mother explained to me when we got home how we should respect the dead.''
Although Thomas Davis Sr.'s grave originally had "a full length grave stone,'' Davis is no longer able to find the exact spot where he is buried. His father's grave, along with dozens of others, including Hayes' well-known grandfather's, are no longer marked. It is a situation that Hayes is eager to rectify.
"As soon as we are able, we are going to find where all the bodies are,'' said Hayes.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.