Archaeologists to confirm if Black cemetery graves are on Clearwater property

In February, ground-penetrating radar discovered 54 “grave-like anomalies”on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street.
The red indicates what archaeologists believe were the boundaries of the North Greenwood Cemetery. The cemetery was moved in 1954 but it appears at least 54 unmarked graves were left behind.
The red indicates what archaeologists believe were the boundaries of the North Greenwood Cemetery. The cemetery was moved in 1954 but it appears at least 54 unmarked graves were left behind. [ Courtesy of the City of Clearwater ]
Published Dec. 14, 2020|Updated Dec. 14, 2020

CLEARWATER — Earlier this year, ground-penetrating radar discovered what archaeologists described as 54 “grave-like anomalies” belonging to an unnamed Black cemetery moved to another location more than six decades ago.

Today, that land on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street is an unused parcel owned by the Pinellas County School District.

Archaeologists will next seek to physically confirm those graves.

Beginning the process known as “ground truthing” was discussed at a Clearwater City Council Work Session on Monday. They will vote at Thursday’s City Council meeting on whether to approve paying for the work.

The cost, according to the work order, is $ 73,600.

It was announced at Monday’s meeting that the city will split that cost evenly with the school district.

During ground truthing, archaeologists dig close enough to coffins to prove their existence but do not disturb them. The physical confirmation of a few is enough to confirm all the radar’s images.

Related: NAACP wants community input on next steps for 124 Black graves found in Clearwater

Private archaeology firm Cardno will begin ground truthing within 45 days of city council authorization and complete their report within 120 days, according to the work order.

The work order said that the ground truthing will also detail the boundaries of the burial ground that has recently been named the “North Greenwood Cemetery” after its Clearwater neighborhood.

Cardno performed ground truthing in June at the site of Tampa’s erased segregation-era Zion Cemetery, which was built over beginning in the late 1920s and is now located beneath a tow lot, warehouses and five vacated Robles Park Village apartment buildings.

There, excavating machines pulled back the first layer of soil an inch at a time with the archaeologists staring intently for findings. They then hand dug first with shovels and then with trowels. Each pile of dirt is tossed into a sifter to ensure that artifacts or pieces of coffins were not lost.

Related: First coffin is uncovered at Tampa’s erased Zion Cemetery

The work at the Clearwater cemetery will be performed with the same diligence.

Newspapers in 1954 reported that, to make room for a city pool and Pinellas High School, the remains of 350 people from the Clearwater cemetery were moved to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin

The city pool is long gone and the school building on the site, behind the Clearwater Intermediate School, is unused and fenced off.

Black residents long clamored that the marked graves were moved but the unmarked ones were left behind. Their voices were ignored.

Then in August 2019, radar discovered that hundreds of Zion Cemetery graves were still in the ground. That provided credibility to the Clearwater claims and led to the property being surveyed in February.

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Since the Zion announcement, four other lost Black cemeteries have been found on both sides of the bridge, including another in Clearwater. Known as the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, radar found 70 of its graves on what is now a parking lot for the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

Tampa Bay Times staff reporter Tracey McManus contributed to this report.