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

Two Black cemeteries were moved in the 1950s, but unmarked graves were left behind.
Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the former location of the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery that was located on property now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.
Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the former location of the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery that was located on property now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2020
Updated Aug. 18, 2020

CLEARWATER — Lost graves from two long-gone Black cemeteries were detected on separate properties earlier this year.

The next steps were stalled by the pandemic that since March has limited gatherings.

But on Monday night, Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, told a virtual meeting of more than 50 people — including Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, historians, civil rights activists and those with ancestors who might be buried in the graves — that it is time to get back to work.

And while the archaeologists charged with finding the graves were the keynote speakers on Monday, Atkinson said decisions fall to the community.

“I can tell you what Zeb wants to do,” he told the virtual attendees. “But it is important to all of us that the community be involved as we move forward.”

Those decisions include whether the bodies remain at their current locations or are moved and what sort of memorials to those cemeteries should be erected at their former sites.

“Closure is needed,” Barbara Sorey-Love, the activist who spearheaded the search for the cemeteries, said during the meeting. “We have waited long enough. It is time to continue to move forward.”

In February, archaeologists with the private firm Cardno used ground penetrating radar to detect 54 graves belonging to an unnamed Black cemetery once located on the corner of Holt Avenue and Engman Street. It sits on unused property now owned by the Pinellas County School District.

That same month, the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida used ground-penetrating radar to detect 70 graves once belonging to the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery that was located on property now home to the FrankCrum company at 100 S. Missouri Ave.

Both cemeteries were relocated in the 1950s to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Dunedin. It is believed that the forgotten 124 graves were unmarked.

Newspaper accounts from the 1950s report that 350 graves were moved from the unnamed cemetery, but until Monday it was unclear how many people were buried in St. Matthews.

Related: See how the story of forgotten cemeteries has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

During the meeting, the archaeology network’s Rebecca O’Sullivan said she has found death records for 545 people buried in that cemetery and suspects there were more.

She is asking those with roots in the since-razed Clearwater Heights neighborhood that was home to St. Matthews to search through family records for mentions of loved ones buried there.

“This is the time to go to the oldest living relative in the area to look through the Bible,” Atkinson said.

It was once common for families to keep birth and death records in the family Bible.

Cardno and the archaeology network worked together in July to physically confirm the existence of graves from Tampa’s erased Black segregation-era Zion Cemetery, which remains under public housing, warehouses and a tow lot.

But they will work separately on the Clearwater cemeteries, with Cardno leading the effort at the unnamed one and the archaeology network at St. Matthews.

Cardno hopes to begin the process of physically verifying the ground-penetrating radar’s findings in the next 45 days.

The archaeology network does not yet have a timeline.

Both archaeology teams on Monday told the virtual meeting attendees that now is the time to begin community discussions with the property owners on what to do with the graves and how to best memorialize those sites.

The three property owners with pieces of Zion Cemetery’s land, for instance, have agreed to one day sell their parcels to a not-for-profit organization that will turn them into a memorial park.

“These cemeteries are extremely important not only to the descendants,” Cardno’s Kimberly Hinder said, “but also to the greater African American community. A lot of African American history gets lost. We really want to recognize these sites for their importance.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of graves found at the unnamed cemetery.